It’s to our benefit that playwright Lynn Nottage is a curious person. She came upon a newspaper story in 2011 saying that 2010 U.S. census results showed Reading, Penn., to be the poorest city in America after having ranked 23rd a decade earlier. Nottage wanted to know what had changed over those 10 years.
So she got to know Reading, interviewing residents and creating something of an oral history project about how their lives unfolded. Soon, she crafted a play based upon some of their common experiences.
That play is “Sweat,” a Pulitzer-winning drama from 2015 currently being staged by the Guthrie Theater. As I experienced it on opening weekend, it felt like one of the most important plays of our young century. Seldom will you encounter a more eloquently realistic script, and the Guthrie production features a cast committed to telling Reading’s story with a resonant ring of truth.
While Nottage’s characters are fictional, it’s clear that she shaped them from the voices and experiences of real Reading residents. “Sweat” demonstrates that she has not only an impeccable ear for natural human speech, but tremendous skill at sculpting a script.
The story she tells is of two families, the mothers in each being close friends and co-workers at a plant manufacturing steel tubing. From the first scene, which takes place in 2008, we know that their sons did something in 2000 that landed them in prison. Over the next two-and-a-half hours, we watch what created the context for their crime.
“Deindustrialization” is the technical term for what drove 41 percent of Reading’s population to poverty-level incomes by 2010. American manufacturers were moving their operations to countries where they could pay their workforces considerably less, in the meantime locking out employees and demanding large wage cuts.
We observe the impact of these corporate trends at close range, mostly within the confines of a working-class bar. That’s where the two women celebrate their birthdays and the promotion of one of them to a management position. But that promotion causes a fissure in their relationship that grows wider as layoffs are rumored, companies close, and addiction, alcoholism, rage and racism become a larger part of the local social fabric.
“Sweat” gives us intimate entrée into the lives of the American poor in a manner rarely found in a major regional theater like the Guthrie. And director Tamilla Woodard and her cast expertly execute the demands of Nottage’s brutally honest script. As the two women, Lynnette R. Freeman and Mary Bacon are consistently believable as they diverge down separate paths of helplessness and anger. But each of the nine characters gets at least one monologue to share their story, and all seize the spotlight to excellent effect.
Almost half of the actors are part of the Twin Cities theater community, and how enjoyable it is to see them crafting such rich characters in the area’s most high-visibility venue. Ansa Akyea and Darius Dotch revel in the realism impressively, but Terry Hempleman feels like the glue that holds this ensemble together, his bartender character acting as a warm but jaded keeper of the community memory.
Aiding in the realism are the set design of Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams and sound designer Luqman Brown’s music suffused with industrial noise. It provides the soundtrack as headlines from 2000 stream across the set between scenes, reminding us that, as news organizations were chasing the campaigns of presidential candidates long forgotten, lives in the “rust belt” were being indelibly altered.
- When: Through Aug. 21
- Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 Second St. S., Mpls.
- Tickets: $80-$13, available at 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org
- Capsule: A powerful look at how poverty happens.