BWW Review: Canadian Stage and Studio 180 Present SWEAT at the Berkeley Street Theatre
The people of Reading, Pennsylvania get by on the rewards of their sweat. They get up when it's dark to punch in at the factory, stand at the assembly line until their feet swell with bunions and their backs spasm with pain. It's not an easy life, but for most, it's the only life they've ever known, and it's been that way for generations.
But things change when the factories start outsourcing to Mexico. There are fewer shifts, the wages are lower. The workers are unhappy. In Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, SWEAT, on now at the Berkeley Street Theatre under the direction of David Storch, these unhappy workers take centre stage to share their gripes and toast to their frustration. The action is set mostly at a bar (designed by Ken MacKenzie to resemble the easy humour of TV comedies like Cheers), which seems to be the only place in Reading doing any business. The bartender, Stan (Ron Lea), pours gimlets and double vodka on the rocks, listens and watches as his customers fall apart in front of him, desperate for a paycheque, some dope, or a chance to vent their fury.
SWEAT is a work of social realism, that controversial genre of fiction, film, and drama that tries to be romance and documentary all in one. It casts light on an often ignored part of American society, that is, those disenchanted workers - and ex-workers - whose dreams have been disrupted by some thirty-odd years of decline in the country's once robust manufacturing industry. For those of us with a New York Times subscription, SWEAT will feel like a continuation of a familiar trope, a vivid illustration of an idea that's been described to us again and again, especially more frequently since 2016. SWEAT seems to be answering the question: Who are these angry, bitter people who have set the country on its current course, and how did they get that way?
Nottage's play is a masterclass in empathy. Each of her characters shines through their flaws - and they are flawed - in some cases, almost irredeemably. But Nottage shows us their soft sides, their tender moments. She reminds us that every addict was once in love, every Nazi once had a mother. Her characters burst with life and charm, even as their troubles drain the life away from them.
Tracey (Kelli Fox), Jessie (Allegra Fulton), and Cynthia (Ordena Stephens-Thompson) have been working on the floor for decades together. They celebrate their birthdays together, they raised their kids together. But when Cynthia gets promoted to management, she becomes a target for the frustration of her former friends, especially when the factory starts cutting back. Did you know about this? Why didn't you tell us?
At the same time, their young adult sons Chris (Christopher Allen) and Jason (Timothy Dowler-Coltman) are planning for the future. Chris wants to go to college, Jason wants to buy a Dunkin' Donuts. Both are depending on factory wages to get them where they want to go. And both get angry when the money dries up.
It's not long before the workers fall into a cycle of substance abuse and self-pity. One by one, each descends into their own personal hell, some falling faster than others. Abruptly, you might say. By the end of the play, most of the main characters are either substance-dependent or homeless. The changes happen off-stage; Nottage hopes that the audience will fill in the blanks with what they've heard about industrial towns on NPR. But I found myself a bit befuddled by all that supposedly goes on between scenes. A healthy woman starts popping pain pills; an angry young man becomes a white supremacist. How, though? The story at times feels incomplete, rushed.
I would have especially liked to see more of Timothy Dowler-Coltman as Jason, whose transformation is the most exciting thing in the show (most of SWEAT is set in 2000, but a few scenes jump ahead to 2008 to show us how it all plays out). As young Jason and not-so-young Jason, Dowler-Coltman plays naive and steely, bombastic and seething. He shares a couple of especially intense, white-knuckle scenes with Allen and Jhonattan Ardila as Oscar, an ambitious young busboy at the local bar.
Together, they act out the greatest danger of America's economic decline. It's not poverty or homelessness or even drug addiction. It's the fact that when you give people a chance to dream then take it away, they lose faith - in themselves, in each other, and in the country that failed them.
Canadian Stage and Studio 180's SWEAT runs through 2 February at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto.
For more information or to buy tickets, click here.
Photo credit: John Lauener