In the factory town of Redding, PA there is nothing more coveted than a union factory job- after all for generations a lifetime job in a factory and the support of your union were all you needed to build the American Dream. SWEAT, playing at the San Diego Repertory Theatre through May 12th is a richly, and empathetically drawn play exploring how family and friendships fracture as that dream becomes an economic nightmare.
Tracey (Judy Bauerline), Cynthia (Monique Gaffney), and Jessie (Hannah Logan) are all old friends, and line workers at the local steel tubing factory. They’ve each worked there since their teens, and they are more than friends; they’re sisters who have supported each other through the good the bad, and the ugly. A group of friends arrive at the neighborhood bar to get drinks and banter with the bartender Stan (Jason Heil stepping in for the injured Jeffrey Jones) and forget their troubles. Jessie is drinking to excess because she’s not over her divorce, and Cynthia is having troubles with her ex-husband.
Tracey’s son Jason (Steve Froelich) and Cynthia’s son Chris (Cortez L. Johnson) both work at the factory as well. Jason is content to work the line like his mother and other family before him, but Chris dreams of something beyond the factory floor. Seeing his father Brucie (Matt Orduña) struggle with drugs and long term unemployment after the textiles factory locked out the workers has served as a warning that nothing can last forever.
When Cynthia applies for and gets a job in management, a job that Tracey also applied for, the fractures in their friendship start to appear. Tracey bitterly complains that Cynthia only got the job because she is black; after all Tracey has worked there the same amount of time and her (white) family has worked there for generations.
Adding to that bruised pride, when the factory starts making moves to change their contracts, pay, and benefits a furious Tracey starts taking out her pain on the non-union bar back Oscar (Markuz Rodriguez). The factory is offering jobs at half the pay than the striking workers, but that’s more than Oscar was making anywhere else.
Tracey doesn’t seem to have a problem with the idea that she had benefited from the unions blocking those who didn’t have a “history”” with the town when it was to her benefit. She downplays Cynthia’s hard work to ascend beyond the floor into management, and Oscar’s willingness to cross the line to take an opportunity that had previously been denied.
Jason and Chis’ friendship are strained along parallel lines for their mothers; if factory work is good enough for Jason then why isn’t it good enough for Chris?
The fighting is all the more painful for the history this group of friends have with each other – after all no one fights dirtier than family. Stan tries to play peacemaker, but emotions are running too hot and words and actions boil over to actions past the point of no return and some actions result in jail time.
Bauerline is excellent as the brash and brittle Tracey. Her wounded pride and pain at being replaceable by a company she had spent her life in is heartbreaking while her caustic lashing out only drives a wedge further between her and friends. Gaffney’s intelligence shines through as Cynthia, making her ambitions and her frustration with her friends who only want to fight her, feel grounded in reality. Logan is fragile, funny, and tragic as Jessie, and she has the difficult task of making a messy drunk look effortless (it’s not).
Orduña is affecting as the continually spiraling Brucie, and Heil is excellent as Stan the bar keeper unable to stop his friends from themselves. Rodriguez is a quiet but compelling character as Oscar who just wants the chance to better his job opportunities. Antonio TJ Johnson is the dose of reality and reason in his scenes as a parole officer.
Directed by Sam Woodhouse this show allows the humor and heart of this group of friends shine through which only raises the stakes and the heartache.
The play firmly falls on the side of the workers whose lives are impacted by the business changes in their town. Their actions may be questionable but their feeling of betrayal is clear. The show illustrates how economic changes, and an ingrained sense of inequality, can finally explode when the status quo starts to shift. Though the timeline jumps between 2000 and 2008, this show is still relevant for those looking at the nations divisions and wanting something to blame.
The final beat of the show is a bit heavy handed driving home the public service announcement feeling of it all. However, this show is a powerful story of a community who chose self-protection and exclusion in a time of prosperity that led to their downfall when changes beyond their control occurred. One wonders how much differently this story could have turned out if instead of fear they chose to welcome.
SWEAT is playing at the San Diego Repertory Theatre through May 12th. For ticket and showtime information go to www.sdrep.org