"SWEAT," through April 13, Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East (801- 581-6356 or pioneertheatre.org); running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
SALT LAKE CITY — Although portraying the struggle of millions, the characters of Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” inhabit a small, small world.
A non-chronological play based on real-world events, “Sweat” portrays the shattering of the extremely predictable — and, most importantly, reliable — career and life trajectories of American steel factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania in the early 2000s.
Skipping college, using a familial “in” to get a job on the floor of a steel factory, working 10 hours a day for 30 years in an assembly line, then retiring with a decent pension is the default game plan for the characters of “Sweat.” Those who attempt to break out of this system are mocked and hated by their peers. Chris (Hassiem Muhammad), for example, states he “has aspirations” and wants to become a teacher, and gets scolded by his father who — although barred from work — insists there is no future outside the factory. Chris’ friend, Jason (Callum Adams), lashes out at him as well. The characters express hostility toward anyone or anything that threatens their traditional way of life.
The cast's love for the familiar is also apparent in the play's setting, a bar run by the aging and amicable Stan and his Colombian busboy, Oscar. All get-togethers, from birthdays to after-work hangouts, take place at the bar, where only people "from the factory" come, says Tracey (Margot White), a factory worker.
Everything about this community — the bar, the work, the social dynamics — has been the same for generations. Therefore, when “half of the machines” at the Olstead factory go missing one day, implying layoffs, it’s no surprise the entire cast is left fumbling in the dark, wondering who to blame.
But thanks to Nottage’s skill as a playwright, their frustration is wholly understandable. Tracey claims that immigrants shouldn't be allowed to work at the factory due to a lack of family history in America. It's a pretty prejudiced claim, yet it sounds poetic and almost reasonable from her point of view. Similarly, Oscar, the Colombian boy defending his right to work at the factory for lower pay, is easy to empathize with as the workers focus their rage on him.
This is another of Nottage's great strengths as a playwright: to illustrate the perspectives of all of her characters at once, without taking sides.
The dialogue of the play is complex, beautifully scripted and tactfully delivered by the play’s cast. The choreography which moves characters through the bar — the only setting in the play, minus an opening and closing vignette at a police station — gives the play a dynamic feeling, despite the set’s limitations. From a production standpoint, Pioneer Theatre’s cast, technical team and director made complete use of the script and set.
But perhaps the most thought-provoking aspect of the play is its ending. During intermission, I could hear an audience member say, “What I don’t like about this play is that it’s depressing. You know how they end up.” And yes, the end for most characters is pretty derelict. (Whether or not a sad ending constitutes a bad play, however, is arguable.) While chance plays an enormous role in the future of these steel workers, their hopelessness seems to be a sentiment of the strong beliefs they held at the play’s beginning.
Because of the worldview they’ve grown up with, the characters can't intuit how to build a life beyond the factory. Nottage’s script portrays, in several moments, the binding quality of the anger and shame caused by the layoffs — emotions which send the characters spiraling into depression, violence, drug use and other dark paths.
While the play does an incredible job of being informative, its strength lies in its ability to describe the histories, backgrounds and mental states of its characters. Their limitations are entirely on display in Nottage’s script, and Pioneer Theatre’s cast rises to the occasion.
But perhaps today’s humans are not meant to spend a lifetime on foot doing the work of a machine. Perhaps a better future lies ahead for the citizens of these Rust Belt towns. What such a future entails, we think, is a mystery only time will unveil.
Note: "Sweat" contains strong language.