By: Theatre Editor Frank Thompson
“You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter, don't you call me ‘cause I can't go.
I owe my soul to the company store…”
-From the song “Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford
Life in Reading, Pennsylvania is anything but easy for the working-class folks at the turn of the millennium so carefully given life in playwright Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, currently running at Trustus Theatre through June 1. Wages are low, addiction plagues the community, and the local steel mill isn't supporting a living wage economy the way it once did. One of the few businesses that manages to survive is a dingy but welcoming dive bar, where the increasingly desperate mill workers come to drown their sorrows and celebrate their few-and-far-between successes.
Bartender Stan (Steve Harley) is a cynical but kindly sort, giving the impression of a man aged beyond his years through extensive post-graduate work at the School of Hard Knocks, while barback Oscar (Samuel Traquina) does his best to keep the shabby furnishings in shape. Stan serves as both host and blue-collar sage to his scrappy regulars Jessie, (Christine Hellman) Tracey (Dewey Scott-Wiley), and Cynthia (Lonetta Thompson). Despite their hard-drinking ways, the trio of women always make it on time to their jobs at the mill, where Dickensian working conditions and uncaring management make every day more grueling than its predecessor. Nonetheless, there's always a cold one and a kind word to be found at the tavern as soon as the shift is over.
These are hardscrabble folks, but despite their woes, birthdays are celebrated, laughter shared, and troubles temporarily anesthetized beneath the neon beer signs. Conflict arises when Cynthia's n'ere-do-well ex-husband Brucie (Darion McCloud) stops in to try and rekindle their romance, or at least cadge a couple of bucks for another drink, but the ladies handle him easily, giving the impression that his act is as old and shopworn as the work clothes on their backs. What the trio is unable to weather, however, is the slight elevation in rank of one of their own. Once Cynthia becomes the union representative, her air-conditioned office and business outfits drive a wedge between herself and Tracey, with Jessie caught between them. Wages and benefits are cut, hours increase, and the already beleaguered workers find themselves inching ever closer to indentured servitude while Cynthia tries unsuccessfully to change the hearts and minds of upper management.
Jason (Patrick Dodds) and Chris (De'on Turner) are the sons of Tracey and Cynthia, respectively, and find themselves trapped in the same dead-end jobs as their mothers, yet dream of better lives. In a nutshell, the rich get richer and the poor get not only poorer, but more hopeless. Opioid addiction, alcoholism, and an increasingly splintered circle of trust separate the group into warring factions, with more than a few shifts in alliances and sympathies as circumstances devolve. Through the use of a framing device centering around parole officer Evan (Samuel McWhite), we realize that Jason and Chris have spent eight years in prison following the show's central story. Their friendship has not survived, leaving Chris psychologically exhausted but determined to improve his life, while Jason's pain has manifested in white supremacy and barely-contained rage. By the conclusion, everyone is alive, but no one is unbroken. There is a vaguely happy ending for one or two characters, but not without a steep price. I won't spoil the twist(s), but will say that, just when you think you've figured out how things will end, you realize how quickly things can turn.
Director Erin Wilson has assembled a cast of heavy-hitters, and there isn't a weak link among them. The sense of ensemble is tangible, and it's clear that each actor supports his/her character through a studied understanding of the rest of the group, as well as the piece as a whole. There's a steady rhythm to the story’s pacing and progression, which churns as reliably as the oft-referenced machines on the mill floor, and the performances work in harmony with that understanding, gracefully doing justice to the Pulitzer-winning script.
The fact that there are no “standout" acting turns is actually a great compliment to Wilson and the artists under her direction. The stark reality of Sweat is the product of a skilled and well-trained team of professionals who never flinch at the sharp edges of their characters’ experiences or attempt to stand out in a production woven as a firm tapestry. As I remarked to a friend at last Thursday's performance, this show is not only a gripping story, but also a de facto master class in acting.
Chet Longley's scenic design captures the essence of every grungy watering hole the audience member has ever encountered. From the ragged jukebox to the mismatched and well-worn furnishings, the barroom which serves as the primary locale, creates a sense of creeping decay which mirrors the declining quality of life in a town which has gone from boom to near-bust in less than two generations. A few incidental scenes are indicated through the simple but effective use of two sliding panels and a forced-perspective back alley, and the bar's final scene of gentrification is a bit shinier, but nonetheless conveys a final blow to anything resembling a place of comfort for the poor of Reading's increasingly stratified population. The show's final revelation is all the more gut-wrenching against the backdrop of what looks like renewal and restored hope.
There are only three chances left to see this masterful example of the artists' craft, and anyone seeking a distinguished modern tragedy presented by those who have perfected it should make sure not to miss it. Though not without comic relief, Sweat is unbending in its depiction of the travails of those on society's economic underside, as fiery as the steel mill inferno the title alludes to.
Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.