Review: At San Diego Rep, ‘Sweat’ conveys in raw terms the human cost of economic upheaval
In the neighborhood bar where they once carved birthday cakes together, the people of Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” now have knives out for each other.
And what they stand to slice up — beyond family bonds and cherished, lifelong friendships — is their own already shredded safety net.
Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning drama — a bracingly of-the-moment piece, even though it unfolds mostly in 2000 — takes place against a backdrop of big topics: economic disruption, the growing income gap, the frictions between groups of Americans who find themselves pitted against each other over race and class.
But as played out with visceral impact in its local premiere at San Diego Rep, “Sweat” distills such abstract ideas into a raw chronicle of how they rip through the characters’ lives.
That’s an artistic signature of Nottage, who has an extraordinary gift for finding the deeply human behind forces that can seem faceless and impersonal.
It was demonstrated to shattering effect in her first Pulitzer-winner, “Ruined,” which illustrated the suffering and resilience of a group of women at a makeshift bar and brothel in war-blasted Congo.
For “Sweat,” the Brooklyn-based playwright has brought her storytelling a little closer to home: The play is set almost entirely in a bar in the distressed Rust Belt city of Reading, Penn.
As designed with a gritty sense of place by John Iacovelli, it’s a joint where the beer is cheap, the TV is set to hockey and the jukebox is perpetually out of order.
“Sweat” is very deeply an ensemble piece, with no true main character. What takes center stage are the story’s relationships, and particularly the close friendship between Cynthia (Monique Gaffney) and Tracey (Judy Bauerlein), who both work — as does almost everyone here — at a steel-tubing factory that has supported most of their families for generations.
But when Cynthia takes a job in management, and the factory starts to tighten the screws on its workers, ugly conflicts erupt over once-dormant fault lines — race in particular. (Cynthia is African-American and Tracey is white).
The superb Gaffney wears Cynthia’s pride and ambition like armor, while Bauerlein skillfully weaves a note of fragility into Tracey’s tough, take-no-prisoners poses.
There’s a parallel dynamic between the two women’s sons, longtime friends Chris (Cortez Johnson, who brings an aching emotional range) and Jason (Steve Froehlich, lending a sense of both scary volatility and deep-seated insecurity).
The barkeep Stan (Jason Heil, stepping in impressively on short notice after an injury to actor Jeffrey Jones) serves as sometime peacemaker, while Cynthia and Tracey’s hard-drinking pal Jessie (Hannah Logan, in a sharp and tragicomic turn) becomes a catalyst for eventual catastrophe.
The Colombian-American bar gofer Oscar (Markuz Rodriguez, quietly effective) is ignored until he very emphatically is not, while Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie (an appealing and ultimately heartbreaking Matt Orduña), who’s hobbled by drugs and long-term unemployment, stands as a harbinger of what could be to come for his younger counterparts.
Antonio TJ Johnson also brings sympathy and gravitas as the parole officer Evan, a flinty voice of reason in scenes that bookend the main action.
Rep co-founder and artistic chief Sam Woodhouse directs with a sure sense of emotional balance among the characters and their interconnected bonds, and lets the play’s frequent flashes of wit breathe.
Matthew Lescault-Wood’s sound design savvily takes in such period tunes as Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” and Moby’s “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?,” and Elisa Benzoni’s costumes, Anne E. McMills’ lighting and Samantha Rojales’ projections — including a news-headline crawl that serves as a kind of indifferent counterpoint to the immediacy of the characters’ struggles — also boost the mood.
The show’s one weak spot is a conclusion that feels a little too pat and symmetrical for this saga of shattered lives and jagged edges.
But in a time when “economic anxiety” has been wielded as an excuse for hatred and blame in our country, Nottage gives us a worthy and powerful look at both the damage wrought to communities left behind by rapid change, and the consequences of pointing fingers instead of holding out a hand.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Through May 12.
Where: San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.
Tickets: $25-$69 (discounts available)
Phone: (619) 544-1000
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