Where: Goodman Theatre Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through April 14
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Lynn Nottage did extensive research for “Sweat,” her 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner about steel workers in impoverished Reading, Pa., and it really shows.
That’s not entirely a good thing.
The play, which is enjoying a well acted Chicago premiere at Goodman Theatre, does an excellent job of depicting the devastating effects of a factory slowdown on a blue-collar community and suggesting that economic hardship is at the root of racial discord, but both the characters and plot are schematic enough to undermine the emotional impact.
Jumping back and forth between 2008 and 2000, the action is set mostly in a comfortable Reading bar nicely designed by Kevin Depinet and lit by Keith Parham. The opening scene, on Sept. 29, 2008—the largest single-day stock market decline in history (though you have to listen carefully to the recorded news bites to catch this) – is an exception. It takes place in a parole office, minimally represented in director Ron OJ Parson’s production by only two chairs in front of a black curtain, so it takes a minute to figure out what’s going on.
Nottage is fabricating a mystery of sorts. As the parole officer Evan (Ronald L Connor) talks first to Jason (Mike Cherry), a truculent skinhead with racist tattoos on his face, and then to Chris (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), a clean-cut black man who has educated himself in prison, we glean that they did something terrible in the past that caused their incarceration and made them want to avoid each other. The rest of the evening more-or-less focuses on uncovering what they did and why.
Switching back to 2000 and one of several birthday celebrations at the bar, we learn that Jason and Chris are best friends and so are their mothers, respectively Tracey (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie). All four work at the steel-tubing factory, as does Jessie (Chaon Cross), a 40-something white woman who seems to be drunk most of the time.
The bartender, Stan (Keith Kupferer), used to work at the factory until he was sidelined by a bad leg injury. His Colombian-American helper, Oscar (Steve Casillas), would love to get a job at the factory but can’t because of discriminatory practices. Rounding out the group is Brucie (André Teamer), Cynthia’s estranged African American husband whose experience is a cautionary tale: He used to work at a textile factory but a strike led to a 93-week shutout, and now he’s in a drug program and comes to the bar to hit on Cynthia for money.
There are rumblings about cutbacks at the steel factory, too, When Cynthia is promoted off the floor to a managerial position, resentments begin to fester. In particular, Tracey, who has more experience, thinks the job went to her friend just because she’s black. Cynthia, for her part, is conflicted. She’s proud of forging new ground for African Americans but suspects the white owners and managers are just using her to keep their hands clean. And she doesn’t like having to go against her striking friends, who are being asked to make all sorts of concessions.
Two incidents escalate tensions. News leaks out that three crucial machines have disappeared from the factory, prompting speculation that they’ve been shipped to Mexico to be followed by the factory itself.
And a Spanish-language flyer invites Latinos to apply for jobs—at wages that are high to them but lower than those of the striking workers.
Oscar, against Stan’s advice, decides to cross the picket line for the kind of job he’s always wanted. That’s when Tracey’s resentment erupts into rage, engulfing a willing Jason and a reluctant Chris. The outcome is tragic, though not exactly in the way we might expect, and Nottage does leave us with a ray of hope.
The only ones for whom the playwright has no sympathy are the unseen capitalistic factory owners, a refreshing corrective in this age of rampant greed. Almost everyone gets to relate an anecdote or two that helps explain who they are and how they got that way, often with an emphasis on how the world has changed, and not for the better.
These stories range from Stan’s account of how badly management treated him after his accident to Tracey’s reminiscences of her father taking her to see beautiful examples of craftsmanship in the town’s buildings. Some are more touching than others, but they share a drawback: They sound too much like they’re based on interviews with Reading residents.
For all its potential power and fine acting—Fitzgerald is scary-fiery as Tracey, in marked contrast to the quiet control of Casillas’ Oscar—the careful structure of “Sweat” kept pulling me out of the drama. I was sorry for this because Nottage’s voice is one to be reckoned with, but in this case, maybe a little more subtlety and a little less symmetry would serve her better.