Ashland Review: Sweat
The last play to open at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season is one of the very best. “Sweat,” a deeply satisfying new work by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, was commissioned as part of the Festival’s United States History Cycle.
Director Kate Whoriskey, who works closely with Nottage, delivers a perfectly paced, sharply funny perspective on a serious topic. We see how NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, can lead to the loss of good jobs in America. This impressive script, rightfully sympathetic to workers, would be even more powerful if it illuminated opposing viewpoints a bit more.
A stellar cast offers finely tuned portrayals of complex characters. We meet a handful of factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, who have proudly fought for a strong union, but now that strength has lost its leverage. Their generous wages and benefits cannot compete with low pay in Mexico and elsewhere.
After some workers are laid off, those remaining go on strike. Although offered a chance to study for jobs in other fields, most of them hated school, and don’t aspire to anything but the jobs that are slipping through their fingers.
Where to turn? To the friendly local bar, of course. There they find their old pal Stan the bartender, played with natural warmth by Jack Willis. The busboy, a Dominican American, has long dreamed of a job at the factory, and considers working as a scab.
Three women friends work together and drink together. Cynthia, a rare black woman to be promoted to supervisor, is wonderfully played by Kimberly Scott. In fine portrayals by Terri McMahon as Tracey, a white single mother, and K.T. Vogt as Jessie, usually drunk but shrewd, these friends begin to distrust Cynthia, saying she sides with management. Tracey’s son Jason, played by a thoroughly convincing Stephen Michael Spencer, and Cynthia’s son Chris, the likable Tramell Tillman, also work at the factory, but when they’re laid off they get into serious trouble.
The play jumps back and forth through several years, so we see how the situation begins, and how the characters struggle and change over time. These are real people, fighting real poverty. “Sweat” shines a probing spotlight on their dilemma.