Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Sweat is set in Pennsylvania, during the Bush years of 2000-2008, when NAFTA and the globalization of industry combined to devastate places like Reading, where factory jobs had long been the mainstay of the local economies, and people without college educations could make a living wage, make mortgage payments, and even dream of going on a cruise vacation.
But at the mercy of macroeconomic forces beyond their control, the characters who populate Sweat find themselves tossed aside, their value to the local company for which they work shriveling into insignificance. Like the story of John Henry, the "steel-drivin' man" who wins a race against a machine that could do his job faster and cheaper, but dies in the effort, Nottage's characters work hard, get injured on the job, but simply can't out-compete robots and cheap foreign labor. Even their union, which protected them for so long, is powerless against the threat of workers in developing countries willing to do the same work for lower wages.
We know from the first moments of Sweat that there will be no happy ending here, for the action begins in 2008, when two of the workers' kids are seen (separately) by a parole officer, as both have been recently released from prison. Jason (David Darrow) had his face all tatted up in prison, and he is belligerent with his PO, angry at pretty much everything. Chris (Kadeem Ali Harris) is a more model ex-con, looking to get back to school and finish a degree.
Soon we flash back to early 2000, where we meet Tracey (Lise Bruneau), Jason's mother, Cynthia (Tonye Patano), Chris's mother, and their friend Jessie (Sarah Nina Hayon). The three have come to the bar (overseen by barkeep Stan, played by Rod Gnapp) to celebrate Tracey's birthday, and all have gotten a little more than tipsy on beer and gimlets. The bar is their clubhouse, their retreat from 10-hour days on their feet, working with machines that freeze their hands, or threaten to fail catastrophically and maim themas one did to Stan several years earlier, crippling him and forcing him behind the bar to make a living.
Stan's injury ("best thing that ever happened to me") has somehow given him a perspective everyone else in the play lacks. Tracey, Jessie and Cynthia are too caught up in the day-to-day struggle to see the larger forces conspiring against them and their jobs, but Stanwho observes everything from his safe perch behind the barcan see what's coming. "You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico," he says, presciently. When Chris informs his friend Jason that he's enrolled in college and Jason mocks him for not using their moms' connections to get into the union, Stan chides Jason, telling him "Not a good idea to resist knowledge."
But time marches on (indicated in gorgeous graphics projected onto Andrew Boyce's even more gorgeous set), and as rumors of layoffs arise, the three friends compete for the same supervisorial job and Cynthia's ex-husband appears seeking both money and reconciliation, tensions rise, retributory violence peeks its bloody head over the horizon, and everyone's life will be forever changed.
Sweat is an important story and, while not a happy one, there is still something uplifting in watching beautifully drawn (and well-acted) characters struggle, Quixote-esqe, against forces far beyond their control in an attempt to create just a little bit of happiness and comfort in their lives. That they mostly fail in their aspirations makes Sweat a tragedy, but a beautiful, heartbreaking one.
Sweat, through October 21, 2018, at ACT's Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm, and Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets (ranging from $15-$110) and more information available at www.act-sf.org.