Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Compelling “Sweat” tells an emotional tale of the fall of the American working middle class and its effect on the nation

Lynn Nottage, who has been called “as fine a playwright as America has,” started to craft “Sweat,” which is now getting a production at Cleveland Play House, in 2011, just before the height of the national malaise, but not before Reading, Pennsylvania and similar areas were hit by layoffs, plant closings, and general angst.  The playwright honed in on the national problem and succeeded in writing a raw, disturbing and illuminating script that won the 2017 Pulitzer for Drama.

As I said in my Broadway review of the show, in 2011, steel industry-centric Reading, Pennsylvania, topped the national census’s poverty list.  The city’s residents were battered by the closing down of rust belt industries as companies packed up and moved to countries with lower worker wages, and low-cost steel from China’s government-subsidized plants flooded the market.

Economic inequality and economic insecurity raised their ugly heads, not only in PA, but other industrial states, resulting in a surprise election result as the usual Democratic voters became desperate for scapegoats and easy cures for their woes.  

Most of the eight-year story takes place inside and outside a bar in Reading, where the employees of the nearby steel mill hang out. 

In the early segments, the bar visitors are in a positive mood.  Hours, pay, and working conditions are good.  One of the women, an African American, is promoted to a management position and there is general pride in her advancement.  Then downsizing and a strike to protect wages takes place.  The bartender warns, “You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico.”

As his prophecy becomes reality, as de-industrialization takes place, attitudes of the “friends” change.  Inner group squabbles emerge, hatred toward scabs who cross the picket line become strong, as scapegoats for the changing economics are needed, racial and ethnic differences become causes for arguments and physical abuse.  Matters get even worse when the plant closes.   

The script clearly reveals the frustration of the white blue collar middle class, who, in their desperation to regain self-respect and hope for financial stability, are willing to put aside their respect for truth and start to believe “alternative facts,” to replace logic with acceptance of emotional shim-sham, and accept that they need to make America “white” again as a combination of Hispanics, blacks and Asians have become the majority population.  Slogans and insults became their truth and they became Trump voters.

The Cleveland Play House production, under the adept direction of Laura Kepley, is even better than the Broadway show.  Not only has Kepley captured every nuance of the finely written script, she has developed a cast whose textured performances make the characters live.  Their depictions are so real that every pain, every emotional crack in their lives, become our pain.

The production is helped by the thrust stage of the Outcalt Theatre which forces the audience to be up-front and personal with the action, thus proving the wisdom of moving the CPH productions from the outdated, three proscenium stages of their former home into the freshly adaptive Allen complex.

Each of the unit cast of Jack Berenholtz (Jason), Brooks Brantly (Chris), Xavier Cano (Oscar) Nehassaiu deGannes (Cynthia), Robert Ellis (Stan), Robert Barry Fleming), Evan (Robert Barry Fleming), Nancy Lemenager (Tracey), Chris Seibert (Jessie) and Jimmie Woody (Brucie) is flawless.  Special huzzahs to Lemenager, Berenholtz and DeGannes.

It is so nice to see many Cleveland area professional performers in this production.  It adds a special touch to CLEVELAND Play House.

Capsule judgement: Theater represents the era from which it comes, and “Sweat” clearly and shockingly tells the depressing tale of what went on during the financial downturn of this country and the resulting hysteria and desperation by a group of people who felt they had been disenfranchised by big business, betrayed by their government, and sold out by their union and political leaders.  It is an important play which fulfills the educational obligation of the arts.  THIS IS AN ABSOLUTELY MUST SEE PERFORMANCE!

“Sweat at runs at CPH through November 4, 2018.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to