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“Sweat” by Lynn Nottage opened February 8th at Asolo Repertory Theatre. “Sweat” is considered the first play to speak directly to the Trump era because of its focus on a working class community in America’s heartland.
Pundits have spent the better part of nearly three years discussing the forgotten working class voters that have been touted as the key to Trump’s appeal. I was intrigued to see a play that would address head on a community impacted by the loss of blue collar jobs. I believe strongly in the power of theatre to transport me to unfamiliar worlds to better understand and empathize with others.
When successful, a production can be truly transformative. Nottage’s play “Ruined,” staged at Florida Studio Theatre a few years ago, was a beautiful meditation on the difficult lives of women living in the Congo; and I was riveted to this unfamiliar yet universal story of the plight of women.
The national intrigue around “Sweat” seems to stem from Nottage’s documentary style, which included nearly two years of in depth interviews with former factory workers displaced as a result of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). NAFTA, signed by President Bill Clinton, allowed companies to take advantage of low cost labor, particularly from Mexico, taking jobs from working class Americans who built their lives around wage stability. The labor movement of the early 20th century helped ensure what we have come to expect - forty-hour workweeks, some vacation and sick leave, and minimum wages. However, the disemboweling of the labor unions in the late 20th century left so many, like the characters in “Sweat,” behind.
“Sweat” introduces us to two best friends, Tracey (Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann) and Cynthia (Danielle Lee Greaves) and their sons, Jason (Matthew Kresch) and Chris (Kevin Minor). Through flashbacks and flash-forwards between 2000 and 2008, with some simple footage from the game-changing elections from those pivotal years, “Sweat” follows the downfall of this quartet together with their loyal barkeep Stan (Matt DeCaro) and close friend Jessie (Liz Zweifler).
We learn that fear and a desire for retribution resulted in the two boys serving time in prison and ultimately seeking redemption in entirely different ways. Jason becomes a white supremacist, and Chris relies on his bible to get him through the rough times. Watching them each clinging to their factory jobs was not terribly compelling, particularly given that they were clearly exhausted and seeking comfort in excessive drinking in their local bar.
The three finest performances came from Minor, Sweifler, and DeCaro, each of whom found the humanity and authenticity in their characters and helped the audience empathize with their motivations. In many ways, Minor provides the heart and soul of the production, as he seems the only one who has been transformed by his experiences.
Sweifler has a wonderful moment where she takes the audience on a journey of what her life might have been like had she not gotten swallowed up by factory work; and her story seems a wonderful plug for taking a “gap year” to travel and find your proper path in life.
The moving ending seeks to tie things up in a neat bow focusing on the idea that we all must care for one another in our communities. Stan’s life becomes an allegory for the importance of the social safety net; and DeCaro, an Asolo regular, turns in another excellent performance, to bring that point home. However, while that sentiment is sound, the ending does not feel earned; and one wonders whether any of the characters is reflective enough to come to the conclusion Nottage seems to desire.