Although the battle and the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election will no doubt continue to provide the impetus for myriad works of art, I suspect a play written before candidates or results were remotely predictable will long be viewed as the most incisive of them all.
Lynn Nottage makes no claims to prescience. But her searing, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat,” receiving a taut Baltimore premiere at Everyman Theatre, brings into focus the resentments and suspicions that would help determine the 2016 outcome. The play was completed the year before.
Journalists have swarmed the Rust Belt since Donald Trump’s swearing-in to learn something about voters they had ignored or misunderstood. Had they ventured out of their comfort zones much earlier, they might have bumped into Nottage.
After seeing a report that Reading, Pa., had reached the highest poverty rate of U.S. cities in 2010, the New York-born playwright spent a good deal of time in that community over a couple of years. Nottage’s interviews and research informed “Sweat,” a drama that traces the fate of factory workers in Reading — a stand-in for a lot of places, really — between 2000 and the economic collapse of 2008.
First performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, productions followed at Arena Stage in Washington before an Off-Broadway run in 2016 and a Broadway premiere for “Sweat” the next year. By then, of course, the play seemed beyond topical, beyond relevant, exactly as it seems right now.
Everyman has become an effective regional champion of Nottage — “Sweat” is the fourth of her works staged by the company in as many years — and that appreciation for the playwright’s vision can be detected at every turn here. (Those turns are literal; Daniel Ettinger’s well-detailed set revolves smoothly for each scene change.)
Vincent M. Lancisi directs the production with expert timing and draws from the cast performances full of telling nuances. Each character emerges with a visceral energy and depth. Each issue does, too. And there are a lot of issues.
NAFTA, union-busting, immigrant-bashing, the opioid crisis — just some of the matters in the mix, adding to the tensions among a small group of co-workers and family members.
Some of these folks dream big, or are content to dream small. Some struggle to forgive or forget. Some consider themselves the only true locals, no matter how long someone else has lived there. Some are all for equal opportunity, as long as they get the first opportunity.As rumors of impending job losses thicken the air, everyone keeps ending up in a bar to unwind and unload, under the more or less empathetic eye of bartender Stan.
He’s hardly a trouble-free soul himself. Bitter over the injury that ended his factory job, he castigates the new breed of bosses who “behave like they’re doing you a goddam favor,” who don’t “understand the real cost, the human cost, of making their s****y product.”
Nottage is all about tallying that human cost as she constructs her play out of strategically positioned flashbacks, building to a lump-in-the-throat ending that haunts you on the way out of the theater and all the way home.
The superb Kurt Rhoads anchors this production beautifully as Stan. Dawn Ursula gives an exquisite portrayal of Cynthia, who applies for a management job. That decision threatens Cynthia’s relationships with her white buddies. One of them, Tracey, played with intense force by Deborah Hazlett, decides to try for the same job.
Megan Anderson is a vibrant presence as Jessie, who once planned a life beyond the factory, but “got caught in the riptide, couldn’t get back to shore.”
JaBen Early captures the anger and regret that continually bedevil Brucie after a long and bitter union strike, as well as a breakup with Cynthia. Their son, Chris, determined to leave the factory behind for something nobler, is vibrantly played by Vaughn Ryan Midder.
The small circle also includes Chris’ volatile bestie, Jason (Tracey’s son), a role insightfully layered by Matthew Alan Ward.
Through a single character — Oscar, a young Colombian-American used to being ignored as a busboy at the bar — “Sweat” effectively triggers the explosive matter of immigration, which couldn’t be more of-the-moment. Alejandro Ruiz does a fine job gradually revealing the full personality of Oscar, who has firm ideals and goals of his own.
The construction of “Sweat” sometimes feels contrived, the dialogue sometimes a little too poetic for certain characters or situations. But the end result registers as all too real.
The play takes you to a place that few politicians or perpetual talking heads ever get to know, a place where hardworking folks, feeling threatened or taken for granted, just might gamble everything on someone promising to make them feel great again.