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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 3, 2016

Few playwrights are as skilled as Lynn Nottage in excavating the souls of the disadvantaged, whether spiritually, emotionally, or economically. But few times in her storied career, which to date has included Intimate Apparel, Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, has she attacked the topic as directly, or as forcefully, as she does in Sweat, which just opened at The Public Theater's Martinson Hall.

Almost all of its characters are trying feverishly hard to get ahead while forever falling further and further behind, subject to forces beyond they control and ledger-apprising faces they never see. It's their lives that are at stake with a fraction-of-a-second firing or a lengthy strike that management prolongs further to extort drastic concessions. These are people who don't just live paycheck to paycheck, though of course they do that, but breath to breath, in an existence that's becoming more vacuum-like all the time.

These folks are current, past, or aspiring employees of Olstead's, a factory in Reading, Pennsylvania, that has provided good-paying union manufacturing jobs for generations, but are finding in the year 2000 that times are a-changin', and not for the better. The passage of NAFTA has made it easier than ever to export jobs, even entire plants, to Mexico, and everyone knows it. But when the workers watch TV, all they see are two presidential candidates who are desperate for votes from this teeming multitude, but never seem to actually be talking to them.

For the present, things are good for Tracey (Johanna Day), Jessie (Miriam Shor), and Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), three friends on the line who have plenty of family connections of their own. Tracey and Cynthia's sons, Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis), work there, too; Cynthia's husband, Brucie (John Earl Jelks), used to, but lost his job and marriage due to drug and alcohol abuse. Their favorite watering hole is a bar tended by Stan (James Colby), whose decades-long job with Olstead's was cut short by an injury that crippled his leg, and the Latino busboy who works with him, Oscar (Carlo Albán), is hoping to escape his drudgery to find a job at the factory, which would better comport with his idea of the American Dream.

Each of these people is looking for just that, of course, and finding it dissolving even when potential opportunities arise. Things become truly explosive though, when, after competing with Tracey for a promotion, Cynthia gets it and becomes one of the midlevel bureaucrats her longtime group hates. Worse yet, there are rumors floating around that the end of the plant is nigh, and Cynthia's behavior in the wake of her moving up in society suggests that they might not be too far off.

Lots of things play roles in their troubles, from race (Oscar's, yes, is an issue, but the white Tracey pegs the black Cynthia's success on affirmative action) to unrealistic expectations to an inability to adapt to a constantly changing world. But Nottage crafts them, as she tends to do, as beautifully human, doing their best to survive against terrifying odds, while not being afraid to depict their many colors. We see, for example, how Tracey is both maternal and self-serving, accepting in some ways but prejudiced in others. And how Cynthia at once doesn't and does deserve the scorn she receives when she's at the helm as things turn south. And how the women's sons are poised to carry on the same traditions unless acted upon by an internal force—which, of course, is what happens.

That leads to one of the weaker points of Nottage's structuring here, in fact: Key portions of the action are dedicated to flipping forward eights years into the future to show us the aftermath of events, something that's anticlimactic and predictable and takes far too long to pay off. And despite Jelks's committed, corrosive portrayal, Brucie is just a bit too much, in all senses of the term, an overly vivid example of what can (and probably will) go wrong when a subtler example would serve the piece just as well.

But the dialogue throughout is cutting and compelling in revealing the increasingly frenzied mental states of these at-sea Americans, and the scenes that dig most deeply into their fears, as internalized and externalized, are gut-wrenching in their ferocity. Terrifically directed by Kate Whoriskey, who amplifies every moment, and designed (the spot-on dive set is by John Lee Beatty, the gritty costumes by Jennifer Moeller, the stark lights by Peter Kaczorowski, the piercing original music and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen) to match, you are never less than an inhabitant in this world.

Day and Wilson keep you there most concretely with their performances, which are airtight and quite affecting in the coordination of rising and falling fortunes and attitudes, but practically everyone is in close sync. Davis and Pullen's unbreakable bond, Albán's untethered hopelessness, Colby's elder-statesman demeanor—all contribute vibrant pigments to this portrait of a place and a way of life that are in the process of fading from the Earth.

The real question of Sweat, and one that you can't completely answer even after the lights go down for the final time, is whether everyone else will vanish along with it. It's a distinct possibility, Nottage reminds us, and it's impossible to ignore the implications it has on the election we're being forced to endure right now. How long can you exist, in a country or on a job, where the rot is coming straight down from the top? If there's no way to know for certain, you're forever sure that these valiant Everymen and Women will fight it every step of the way.

They aren't afraid to get their hands dirty and their knuckles bloody. But oh what a shame that it seems as if each new day is forcing them to do just that.

Through December 4
The Public Theater Martinson Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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