February 11, 2020

in Plays

Play (2015)
by Lynn Nottage

Directed by Kimberly Senior
Huntington Theatre Company
Huntington Avenue Theatre
Symphony Hall area, Boston
January 31 – March 1, 2020

Scenic Design: Cameron Anderson; Fight Director: Ted Hewlett

With Maurice Emmanuel Parent (Evan), Shane Kenyon (Jason), Brandon G. Green (Chris), Tyla Abercrumbie (Cynthia), Guy Van Swearingen (Stan), Jennifer Regan (Tracey), Marianna Bassham (Jessie), Tommy Rivera-Vega (Oscar), Alvin Keith (Brucie)

Marianna Bassham as Jessie, Tyla Abercrumbie as Cynthia, Jennifer Regan as Tracey in 'Sweat'

Marianna Bassham as Jessie
Tyla Abercrumbie as Cynthia
Jennifer Regan as Tracey
in “Sweat”
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Courtesy of Huntington Theatre Company

A fictionalized narrative drawn from interviews with factory workers in Reading, PA.

Factory workers collect at a local bar, where Stan (Guy Van Swearingen) is the bartender and Oscar (Tommy Rivera-Vega) helps out and cleans up. The workers argue about wages and power relations until one of them takes on a management role and supports decisions which strongly affect the others. Tempers rise, conflicts ensue, and unwitting people get caught in the crossfire.

Nottage’s inspiration for writing this play – from talking with steel workers in Reading, PA – is genuine and heartfelt, and the result is a story that is searingly relevant and heartbreakingly moving. The intent and the highly relevant story about alienation and manipulation of the blue collar workforce in America, on their own terms, provide an engaging and important subtext for this play.

Despite this wrenching subject-matter and the playwright’s noble intent, the manner of writing causes some of the narrative to be elliptically rendered and serves to confound, rather than focus, some of the play’s dramatic developments.

The play is set in 2000 and 2008 and switches constantly between the two contexts. Though that, at times, makes sense, there is so much resetting of time frames that the sequence of events becomes somewhat confusing. One understands, given playwright Nottage’s use of historic accounts of the lives of factory workers in Reading, why she has chosen this technique. As well, one understands both 2000 and 2008 as relevant years during which major financial crises prevailed. Nonetheless, the constant changing of time frames, though suggestive, takes a toll on one’s comprehension of the narrative’s development.

Because of the constantly switching contexts, the narrative, for most of the play, is suggestive rather than dramatic. In the final scenes, the drama comes to fruition, and though vivid, it arises out of that suggestive and somewhat confusing background rather than from a clear dramatic buildup.

Given some of those challenges, the production gives a good visceral sense, despite some lack of clarity about what exactly is going on, of the developing chaos. The actors rise nobly to the occasion of delivering a collective portrait of hard-working people driven to the edge of their patience and set off into difficult, and sometimes tragic, directions.

Given the collage-like narrative structure, getting the hang of the relationships also takes a bit of time. Gradually, though not immediately, it becomes clear that Jason (Shane Kenyon) is the son of (Tracey) and Chris (Brandon G. Green) is the son of Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie), relationships which directly impact the drama.

There is certainly some very good acting, but some of the best talent gets quite underused. Marianna Bassham (Jessie) has her moments, but spends long swaths of stage time sitting at a table drunk. Maurice Emmanuel Parent (Evan) has a quite limited role in the fringes as a parole officer.

Playwright Nottage has written the excellent Intimate Apparel (2003), given a superb production at the Lyric Stage in 2015. That play was vividly and dramatically focused and its narrative crystal clear.

The film American Factory (2019), which won the 2020 Oscar for best documentary, tells a similar story, about a factory in Dayton, OH taken over by a Chinese company. The stories in the film are equally heartbreaking to those in Sweat. A bit more straightforwardly presented, the film delineates its sequences of events quite clearly, yet with considerable dramatic focus. For those moved and inspired by the background of Sweat, American Factory film would provide an excellent follow-up.

– BADMan (aka Charles Munitz)

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