“Sweat,” Lynn Nottage’s lauded 2015 play, is difficult — in the best possible ways — for two reasons.
First is the adulation it garnered following its 2017 transfer from the Public Theater to the Broadway house Studio 54. The play was grasped onto as an answer for all the political uncertainty levied by the election of Donald J. Trump. It was seen, in some cases shallowly, as a “how-to” in understanding the disaffection of Midwestern working class white voters. It won the 2017 Pulitzer for drama.
The second difficulty sits beyond the platitudes and awards: “Sweat” is a play about the alienation and distress inflicted on the majority of Americans whose annual income comes in under six figures. It is a small, specific tile that helps to complete an uncomfortable mosaic of similar struggles an incredibly large number of Americans face every day.
In “Sweat,” Nottage guides us through the on-the-ground reality of Reading, Pennsylvania — during the years of 2000 and 2008. Set primarily in a local bar, we witness the lives of eight Reading residents as they navigate the unraveling of their community by way of economic and social change — feeling more and more isolated and desperate as the world seemingly moves on without them. Going in, the hype of the play can overshadow the story and characters, but that feeling is dispelled as soon as the lights go up. From the first moment, the cast forces you to leave your presumptions at the door.
The production staged by the Huntington Theater Company is as beautiful in its design and acting as it is in its knowing of the heavy reality it depicts. Nottage first began researching the play in 2011, trying to sort out the impact de-industrialization and the economic collapse would have on workers lacking the capital to escape. At every point the production reflects the claustrophobia each character is held by, whether by the unassuming brick walls of a parole office or the bar that at first seems welcoming but soon devolves into dangerous territory.
Of course, it must be said that for anyone who has lived in an area like Reading, “Sweat” can, at times, come off as a pastiche. And that is not in any way a fault.
We see the long-standing indifference to voting for politicians whose policies don’t deliver objective material betterment for the working-class; the rapid disintegration of the American manufacturing industry after the implementation of NAFTA; unions withering rather than being busted — workers locked out of their factories; contracts under futile negotiation; suicide, opioid addiction, prison and alcoholism. And of course, at the core of the play, an examination of how the crushing, banal chaos of being what is now fashionably called “downwardly mobile” leads to the breakdown of relationships on racial and class lines. Everyone’s held identity and place in the world begins to be called into question. For some, these are not new issues and seeing them presented on stage is as moving as it is informative for others.
The scope of topics Nottage and the cast are juggling can feel overwhelming, but the depiction is authentic and confronting. Nottage’s greatest skill as a playwright has always been her nonjudgmental eye, her adeptness to depict honestly the lives and behaviors of people living under insurmountable circumstances. And that is where the flush energy of the production sits: it composes a detailed portrait of individuals who are often rendered only as caricature. What could easily be played with the stuffy deference of a Miller tragedy is given a bombastic, wholly human punch by an ensemble whose chemistry feels like they’ve known their characters for two decades.
As said, the cast was precise and their interpretations of the characters felt lived-in, almost shockingly so. Tyla Abercrumbie’s performance as Cynthia — the floor worker turned manager — was masterful. Abercrumbie has a laser accurate ability to make one understand how the responsibility of possessing even a sliver of power is always a mixture of futility and unwavering resistance. Guy Van Swearingen held the play and the cast together as the bartender Stan. Jennifer Reagan’s visceral take of Tracey seamlessly steered the energy of the play from a simmer to an overflowing boil in the second act. Props must also be given to Cameron Anderson’s brilliant and meticulous set design, which provides a playing-space that jumps between the comfortably recognizable and the claustrophobic.
As difficult as “Sweat” can be, it expertly pushes on our stereotypes and assumptions, giving just a glimpse of how a select cadre of friends and workers react to being squeezed, economically, tighter and tighter. It is confronting without being exploitive. And with a cast as first-class as the one playing at the Huntington, you are in good hands to be tested and confronted.
(The Huntington Theater Company’s production of “Sweat” runs through March 1 at the Huntington Avenue Theater, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, Massachusetts. For more information, visit huntingtontheatre.org or call (617) 266-0800.)