Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Well, NAFTA was ratified the next year and took effect in 1994. Although it was not the only reason for the decline of American manufacturing, it contributed to the rapid deterioration of the "rust belt." A lot of heavy industry did move beyond our borders, and untold numbers of workers who thought their union-supported jobs would last for a lifetime were suddenly locked out. What do you do when the factory you have worked in since you got out of high school no longer exists? What do you do when the unemployment checks run out, and there are no other jobs to be found in your hometown?
Such a place was Reading, Pennsylvania. Once a stable factory town, by 2010 it had the highest poverty rate in the country for cities over 65,000 population. This is the city where Lynn Nottage sets her excellent play Sweat, which she wrote after interviewing residents of Reading over an extended period. The play won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017, and it was well deserved.
The play opens in 2008 with a parole officer interviewing two young men who have just been released after spending eight years in prison. The officer wants to know what happened eight years ago. They won't say. The rest of the play is a slow build to the moment of violence that put them away.
Scenes toggle between 2008 and 2000, when things were still pretty good in Reading. People had their jobs and enough spending money to party at their favorite bar. They figured that their jobs would be there as long as they wanted to work because the union protected them, and they'd have a good pension when they retired.
The hunky-dory-ness doesn't last too long. Soon, management demands concessions from the workers. The union digs in and won't compromise. Neither will management. Strikes go on and on with no end in sight. Then poof! The factories are gone, and things fall apart for many of the residents of Reading.
Nottage traces the dissolution of this society through the personal journeys of some brilliantly etched characters. Tracey, Cynthia, and Jessie are bosom buddies, all three working on the production line at a pipe company until there is no production line anymore. Cynthia's husband Brucie has been out of work for two years after going on strike against a textile company, which leaves town. Jason and Chris, two young guys, one white, one African-American, assume that they will make a living in Reading. Wrong.
It's not just the economy that tears these people apart. Throw in racism and the kind of human behavior that pulls whoever is trying to climb out of a boiling pot back into the water. It's a sad play, to be sure, but it ends with a lovely scene of forgiveness that alleviates the bleakness.
I cannot imagine a better production than this one at Santa Fe Playhouse, directed by Robyn Rikoon. Everything about it is perfect. The set (James W. Johnson), lighting (Jared Roberts), costumes (Erica Frank), props (Tyler Thomas), and hair and makeup (Johnna Presby) are all absolutely top-notch. The sound design by Patrick Janssen is the best I have ever heard.
The acting is equally superb by all involved. You forget that you are watching actors. These are real people on stage. If I were to single out the most riveting performance (which I shouldn't do, but can't help myself), it would be Kate Udall as Tracey. Even the way she handles her hair is brilliant.
Danielle Louise Reddick (Cynthia), Karen Guber Ryan (Jessie), James J. Johnson (Brucie), Joshua Caleb Horton (Chris), Danny Martha (Jason), Scott Harrison (the bartender), Juan-Andres Apodaca (the Columbian-American employee in the bar), and Freddie Lee Bennett (the parole officer)–they're all perfectly cast and all give terrific performances. What a great piece of work under Robyn Rikoon's direction.
It might seem that I'm overdoing the praise here, but honestly this is one of the best theater experiences I have had in the last several years. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Sweat runs through June 10, 2023, at Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E De Vargas St, Santa Fe NM. For tickets and information, please visit santafeplayhouse.org.