Though much of Lynn Nottage's Sweat takes place in 2000, it couldn't feel more immediate. At the time Dallas Theater Center opened the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the government shutdown was still dragging on, leaving hundreds of thousands of federal workers without pay (and some furloughed without jobs to go to). As of this writing, another shutdown looms next month.
But economic unrest is not all Nottage touches on in her sharp and searing work. Racial tension and addiction pile on, giving the play deep layers that director Tim Bond isn't afraid to examine.
In a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania (ranked then as one of the poorest cities in the nation), generations of steel factory workers gather to shoot the shit and relax with round after round. Nottage's twist is that she focuses on a trio of women, each tethered to the plant with a mixture of pride and defeat.
As Tracey, Sally Nystuen Vahle makes her famous Medea from several seasons ago look like a weakling. Tracey is raising delinquent-in-training son Jason (Kyle Igneczi) after her husband's death. Cynthia (Liz Mikel) is also supporting her son, Chris (Ace Anderson), and his dreams of attending college to become a teacher, but ex-husband and unemployed addict Brucie (Kenajuan Bentley) won't stop hanging around. Newly divorced and self-medicating with alcohol is Jessie (Barbra Wengerd), once a town beauty but now voted most likely to pass out in the corner booth.
They all hang around the bar (brought painstakingly to life by William Bloodgood's scenic design and Joyce Liao's lighting) run by Stan, an affable fellow played by Jon Shaver, and tended to by Oscar (Christopher Llewyn Ramirez), a first-generation Colombian-American who dreams of a better life.
This is the sort of group that would later be targeted by Donald Trump in his presidential bid: blue-collar Americans who toil at factory jobs and are dangerously wary of outsiders that threaten their established — though dying — way of life.
A truly integrated projection design by Shawn Duan and sound design by Michael Keck emblazons news reports, stock tickers, presidential speeches, and historical images across the set, all to excellent effect.
The catalyst — Tracey and Cynthia are both vying for a management position, though the plant is already eyeing outsourcing — magnifies a divide between the two friends that perhaps was already there, though couched in a "we're all in this together" survival mentality.
Among the realistic touches that add to the tension are a remarkable make-up design from Leah J. Loukas (no spoilers, but: how did they do it?) and spot-on costumes from Lydia Tanji.
What doesn't land is the almost laughable fight choreography coordinated by U. Jonathan Toppo, which nearly undoes everything the cast and creative team worked so hard to build over the last two-and-a-half hours.
Dallas Theater Center's production of Sweat runs through February 10 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.