What happens to a city and its communities when the primary employer in that city shuts down? This is what happened in the city of Reading, Pennsylvania, where Sweat — now playing at the Keegan Theatre — takes place.
In 2011, the playwright Lynn Nottage began interviewing residents of Reading, which with a poverty rate of over 40 percent was officially one of the poorest cities in America. The play takes place in a bar in Reading where many of the steelworkers gather to bond and relax. It is in this bar that Nottage plays out in intimate detail what happens to the people — to the city — when its industry is moved out of the country.
Sweat’s strong, steady-eyed look at the current state of the union at a neighborhood and personal level is powerfully delivered through the uniformly strong acting of its cast and the clear-eyed yet lyrical direction by Angelisa Gillyard, whose staging is almost dance-like. The action repeatedly moves from the fully occupied bar to an intimate duo or trio, then back to the full bar again. Rather than having the actors freeze when the focus is not on them, Gillyard has them maintain their activities and relationships at a level that is still vivid but muted. The audience is guided to experience how the intimate scenes relate to and are stimulated by the larger scene and vice versa.
Watching this interplay of characters and forces staged in this way made it feel at times as though both the characters and the audience were in a kind of trance or shock. That feeling of trance or shock accurately reflects the way many people feel when thinking about the shifts that have occurred in this country. … It is mind-boggling for the characters as well as the audience. And the staging of Sweat compellingly embodies that confusion.
The evocative set (Matthew J. Keenan) and lighting (Alberto Segarra) not only place us in the bar but also establish succinctly and cleverly the parking lot. Cynthia’s down-sized home and numerous other spaces are suggested in a believable and essential way. Johnna Presby’s costumes were supportive yet inconspicuous except when they needed to be otherwise: Jessie’s adamantly flamboyant dresses were the most notable and fun.
Sweat is very much like the iconic, feel-good TV show Cheers except that in Sweat there is no laugh track, and the unraveling of the social ties that hold the patrons of the local bar together is out in the open and seething.
The question Sweat puts forward is how are we to live our lives so that corporate influences on them are irrelevant? And how do we ensure that the ties that bind continue to do so?