“Sweat” is this year’s Pulitzer-prize winning play. It more than earns that great accolade, as well as its daring title. “Sweat” dares you to take into account the sweat of most of its main characters’ smaller-than-life lives. Sweat could be a synonym here for “work,” and that is what most of its squashed denizens of Reading, Pennsylvania, actually do. It’s more like slavery. They are slaves to the steel mill, so much so that the entire town’s economy, and the citizens’ lives, are attached at the hip to the Mill.
It’s morning, noon and night, until they die. It’s brutal. It’s tough stuff. Now two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage is no stranger to horror. Witness her other, superb, previous Pulitzer-winner “Ruined” about the unspeakable terrors of African warfare and its ruinous effect on women.
“Sweat” tackles horrors you can speak of. Over-work and under-pay, being the two main topics of nearly every conversation, its hard-scrabble characters carry on at the local bar, which is almost womb-like in its superb setting by John Lee Beatty. It is so familial and familiar, you feel like you’ve been hanging out there for years, as the plays’ bedraggled characters have.
If this bar, and its Christ-like bartender (a superb James Colby) seem right out of “The Iceman Cometh,” you’re not far wrong. Nottage is really plowing Eugene O’Neill’s lower depths, as well as her own. And like O’Neill, they are all being crushed and cursed by alcohol. Being that it’s 2017, other addictions apply. They pile up on the beleaguered characters of “Sweat,” as the actions to close down the Mill roll over all their lives in a relentless juggernaut of corporate greed and union-busting that leads, of course, to catastrophe.
“Sweat” is terrifyingly prescient. This is the first play I’ve seen that explains why “You Know Who,” to quote Whoopi Goldberg of “The View,” got elected. This is a Rust-Belt play with all the Rust in full view.
“Sweat” begins its road to hell-in-a-hand-basket with two matched monologues of two young men, barely out of their teens, childhood friends’ it turns out, one black, one white, who have been imprisoned there for some unspeakable, violent act. We don’t find out just what, until the frightening ending, but suffice it to say, that Khris and Jacob’s predicament hangs over the play like the doomed fog that has shrouded all these characters’ lives, white and black. Eugene O’Neill’s characters have gone from Pipe Dreams to Rust.
The cast is uniformly excellent but I do have to single out the German descent White-Supremicist-in-the-making of Will Pullen, who has totally nailed the seemingly sweet, but really brutal Jason, a totally exact product of rural Pennsylvania and his factory working Mom, the Tony nominated Johanna Day.
The two of them enact a scene of horror that rivals any horror film, when he finally gets out of jail and comes home to borrow $5 from her, only to find that she is now completely unemployed and a hopeless pill-head. Without that pollution-spilling Steel Mill, they’re both reduced to hopeless addicts, and their lives and hopes destroyed.
No, “Sweat” isn’t for the faint-of-heart, but it’s god-damned powerful. And Lynn Nottage capturing their pain and frustration so winningly is a compelling sign of hope.