American Conservatory Theater’s ‘Sweat’ delivers fearless interpretation of working-class America

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On Wednesday, the American Conservatory Theater presented Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Sweat” at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. The play explored both the intimate experiences and crippling dilemmas of the blue-collar steel mill workers in Reading, Pennsylvania.

The writing of the play was brilliant; Nottage did an excellent job of chiseling a complex narrative of a marginalized community. The gradual unhinging of the characters’ patience accurately reflected the radical changes that accompanied being thrust into a new millennia. With scenes oscillating between the years 2000 and 2008, “Sweat” heavily focused on external changes and how they affected individual development. Thus, the play served as an extremely intense character study of American workers.

The equality of the characters’ significance was astonishing. Their voices were at the same level of vibrancy, and their passion was well-articulated. Jessie (Sarah Nina Hayon) exhibited alcohol-induced comedic behavior, such as dancing sluggishly across the stage with the end of her dress tucked into her underwear. Oscar (Jed Parsario) demonstrated expertise in his job through his smooth movements, such as jumping off the bar to twirl into the storage room. And Stan (Rod Gnapp) showed his character’s multifaceted nature — not just a jaded yet wise philosopher of socioeconomic conflicts — by unexpectedly pulling out a baseball bat from under the bar and snapping it on the counter, a maneuver that shocked the audience and cast members into silent obedience. These small details, coupled with the actors’ abilities to immaculately choreograph them to life, made all the characters on stage memorable and honest beyond imagination.

A crucial aspect of this production was the amount of time and attention invested in the set. Stan’s bar exuded inviting warmth, and the props and decorations cluttered in the background give the set a permeating sense of familiarity, intimacy and nostalgia. The bar was intentionally set up to resemble a local bar that everyone in the audience might have seen before, an artistic decision that successfully conveyed the empathetic message that the characters in the play are no different from the people watching them.

Although Stan’s bar was the only setting for the 2000 time period and the scenes taking place in 2008 sported an extremely minimalist aesthetic, the play was never uniform or boring. The transitions that indicated the time skips were incredibly creative: Montages of historic events flashed within the block letters that indicated the date. Throughout most of the show, no part of the stage was left static or vacant, as the actors’ freedom to use the entirety of the stage to their advantage demanded the audience’s undivided attention.

Furthermore, the decision to show neither the events that unraveled at the steel mill nor the steel mill itself was a particularly interesting one. All the audience was able to see was the aftermath of the workday. Perhaps this tactic was a method of showing just how exclusive and cold the steel industry is, as juxtaposed to the homey atmosphere of Stan’s bar.

Additionally, the choice to keep the mills concealed kept the audience from empathizing with one perspective more than another. Much like Stan — who tried to keep a neutral stance during the play — the audience was solely exposed to the biased rage of each individual, unaware of what really went down at the picket line.

The audience is further encouraged to consider the pains of all the people in the 2008 scenes. The domestic scenes between Tracy (Lise Bruneau) and Jason (David Darrow) took place on the left side of the stage, while those between Cynthia (Tonye Patano) and Chris (Kadeem Ali Harris) occupied the right. This placement technique highlighted that emotions of pain, regret, betrayal and bitterness are valid for all of the characters.

Through unique narrative structure and magnetic characters, “Sweat” offered a uncensored, inclusive look into the struggles of the average working American. Thematically, there was nothing that this play failed to address. Overall, “Sweat” was a completely satisfying tour of the broken dreams of Americans.

“Sweat” is playing at the American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater until Oct. 21.

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].