Friday, February 9, 2018

Rust Belt blues in "Sweat," the Russell Stage finale at Phoenix's Park Avenue home

Having advanced in the workplace, Cynthia (Dena Toler) tries to explain to her friends what their employer's up to.
Reading, Pennsylvania's most eminent literary native son, Wallace Stevens, only glancingly captured his hometown and its environs in his poetry, an observation I owe to John Updike, whose hometown was Shillington, a small Reading suburb. A solid bourgeois manufacturing center that came into its own long after the poet (1879-1955) left for New York City, then Connecticut, Reading in the early 21st century could be placed in contention with many other places as a Great Recession poster child.

It's this era, in a play seesawing between 2000 and 2008, that Lynn Nottage focuses upon in
"Sweat," which won last year's Pulitzer Prize in drama. During a run from tonight through March 4, Phoenix Theatre's production will give audiences' emotions a good drubbing even as it confirms the excellence that the 35-year-old company will carry to its new home on Illinois Street later this year.

"Sweat," directed by founding producing director Bryan Fonseca, probes the difficult reality of life in a Rust Belt town contracting the lives of its inhabitants over this century's first decade. The bitterness of descending injustice, spurred by the attraction of cheaper labor as NAFTA opened up Mexico to American manufacturers, consumes the play's characters. Unlike other Rust Belt cities further west, Reading had a justifiable sense of entitlement to more protection from these wrenching changes: Families were long settled there. As the bartender Stan complains: "Loyalty is supposed to mean something — this is America!"

Something that Stevens wrote may apply: "That's what misery is," one poem opens, "Nothing to have at heart. / It is to have or nothing."

Nottage explores that nothing and that heart in great depth, and, as seen in preview Thursday, this production is up to her presentation of the conflicts that misery gives rise to: Interracial friendships are threatened, labor struggles move "whose side are you on?" distinctions to the fore, families lurch toward disintegration, personal ambition can't gain a foothold.

The cunning progression of scenes, guided by a news crawl and specific dates screened above the
stage, will have audiences eager to plug in information as it emerges about the characters. The frame of Jason and Chris, two young men wrecked by circumstances, interviewed by their parole officer Evan (played with no-nonsense authority tinged with compassion by Josiah McCruiston) is quite effective.

Nottage packs a lot into telling everyone's story and giving their relationships plenty of room to strike sparks, with barely a let-up. In the latter category is an extended monologue for Tracey, the feistiest and most coarsely robust of the factory workers at the play's center, recalling her craftsman grandfather, her pride in her hometown's past and what he did to shape it.  It's a beautiful set-piece, one of many moments to be astonished and grateful for Diane Kondrat's return to the Phoenix schedule.
Jason shows Stan and Chris a photo of the motorcycle he intends to buy.

Others include a brief scene involving a tense reunion between Tracey and her son Jason, after she is out of work and dependent on self-medicating to treat her back pain. Strung out on opioids, Tracey mumbles bitterly, shuffling when she has to move, prematurely aged. At the preview, that characterization seemed as fully formed as if it had to occupy a whole play. Kondrat can turn on a dime in the middle of a scene, too, which happens when Tracey recalls a rollicking episode in Atlantic City with work pal Cynthia back before Cynthia's promotion strained their relationship: Tracey's recollection of the bond leads right into a withering lecture on a friend's obligation to fight; Kondrat's performance lowered the boom on Cynthia and the audience at the same time.

Dressed for office work, Cynthia tries to stay friends with the suspicious Tracey.
To various degrees, demands for changes reflecting drastic shifts in the characters' lives permeate the play. The cast rises to the occasion: Jason's hair-trigger temper has helped turn him from a short-sighted but intense union loyalist into a skinhead punk; Nathan Robbins bridged the divide convincingly. Chris' more clear-eyed ambition sinks into fidgety confusion in Ramon Hutchins' portrayal as the son tries to negotiate the rift between his parents, Cynthia and Brucie. Dena Toler exemplified African-American upward mobility seeking vainly to stay grounded in origins, yet rise above them. Dwuan Watson gave a seductive performance as the elusive head of the family, a charmer prone to wander off-course as the futility of the union's last-ditch efforts hits home.

Angela Plank poignantly played Jessie, a fragile character ready to share in the militancy of her  friends on the factory floor but defeated by nagging loneliness as she sinks with her comrades into the economic maelstrom. In Phil Male's striking unit set, Rob Johansen presides as Stan, the bartender whose severe factory injury has removed him from that milieu while giving him some stature as a peacemaker and in the classic bartender role of sympathetic ear. The outsize extrovert will pay hugely for this, setting up a heart-stopping last scene. (Johansen also choreographed one of the most violent and tightly controlled fights I've ever seen onstage.) Ian Cruz as Oscar, the bar's overlooked and underpaid busboy, emerges as the upholder of values that the play's context inexorably depletes.

Brucie has some explaining to do to Chris, his son.
Humane values struggle under the shadow of Reading's severe economic stress. It's the nemesis faced by all the characters in "Sweat." Although the factory closure is under remote human control, it has the force in this play of fate. The kind of playgoer who shuns drama that plumbs the sorrows of recent events ("Why pay to go to depressing theater when life's real struggles are depressing enough?") should consider that art removes the inevitable distancing effect of fateful bad news. Its shaping power destroys the illusions through which we process the real world. This production ennobles the characters' struggles and their multiple analogies in the lives of real people, many of them still alive and suffering. We can ill afford to be among those "who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears," in another poet's words.

Maybe that's why Wallace Stevens titled the poem whose first lines I quoted above "Poetry Is a Destructive Force."  And it could also be why the poem's governing image is the lion, presented not so much as a predator as the blissful post-hunt absorber and digester of weaker creatures: a symbol of fate.

That's cold comfort for anybody, whether unarmed against either a lion in the wild or an economic system in our midst. But a play or a poem can be the thing that provides a point of rest, even if we are well advised to stay alert. Let the Bard of Reading speak it:

The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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