Entertainment » Theatre

Sweat

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Oct 10, 2018
Lise Bruneau and Tonye Patano in "Sweat" at A.C.T. through October 21.
Lise Bruneau and Tonye Patano in "Sweat" at A.C.T. through October 21.  (Source:Kevin Berne)

When the curtain rises on ACT season opener "Sweat" and we learn that it's the year 2000, the first reaction is relief.

Just think how many national problems didn't yet exist in those days. For that matter, just think about the cares in our own lives that had yet to develop.

But the glow of halcyon aughts only lasts a few minutes. Because of course, America circa 2000 has its own familiar demons: racism, xenophobia, poverty, addiction, etc.

In this tale by Pulitzer-winner Lynn Nottage about how the working class gets stripped, the past is never a refuge. Instead it's the site of an autopsy revealing the many ways that people — their bodies, their lives, and their livelihoods — all mean shockingly little to the powers that be.

"Sweat" takes place almost exclusively in a small bar in a company town, where the employees of the nearby steel mill meet after hours.

The set by Andrew Boyce is so comprehensive and authentic that if you installed a couple of working taps it could probably open for business right there onstage and few people would notice anything amiss.

The bar is also the show's first big obstacle, though, because in a lesser play it would seem nakedly contrived that so many pivotal events in this town happen here, and that so many characters sit on critical conversations until they're firmly between its walls.

And indeed, it's hard not to notice that this place has the same clientele of just six related people month after month. Theater is an artificial realm, of course, but it's still not a good idea to expose that quite so directly all the time.

The good news is that director Loretta Greco blows those worries straight out of the water, because every word from every actor's mouth in "Sweat" sounds so plausible that in many cases the show surpasses the authenticity of actual conversation.

Case in point, Rod Gnapp (previously the long-suffering restauranteur in "Seared" at SF Playhouse) fills in as Stan, a rock-steady bartender who appears never to have a night off and is full of deadpan wisdom about the nature of life and work.

He opines that nobody cares about hardworking people or basic human decency anymore. He listens to everyone with a sympathetic ear. He uses sardonic wit to cover up his own pain.

The role sounds incredibly contrived, but actually Gnapp is a genuine delight. Similarly, the story of Cynthia, a career laborer who finally breaks into a cushy manager job only to faced with the horror of having to sell out her friends (Tonye Patano), has the bearings of a fairly trite morality tale.

But Patano seems tantalizingly real in the part. Almost everything in "Sweat" does: the resentment, the fear, the arguments, and the compassion hemmed in by dangerous necessity.

Possibly that's because "Sweat" is a real story, or close to one, inspired by the town of Reading, Pennsylvania, which developed the highest poverty rate in the nation after seeing most of the local jobs exported.

The audience realizes this is coming well before most of the characters do, which makes "Sweat" a bit like classical tragedy: Everyone is doomed before it starts, but this only becomes evident to all of them after it's too late.

That's where the millennium-turning setting of "Sweat" works to its advantage. In the here and now, a time nearly 20 years ago appears deceptively simple. But it doesn't take long to realize that the rot was well advanced even then.

In the show itself, jilted widow worker Tracey (a steely Lise Bruneau) looks back on her own past with a rosy perspective. In a stirring but troublesome monologue about her grandfather, she shares melancholy memories of the strength of his craftsmanship.

The past always seems more solid and enduring that it probably really was. In comparison to the fleeting present, we crave the sturdiness that we always imagine the world had back then.

And in the end that's the real tragedy of Greco's "Sweat."

"Sweat" runs through October 21 at A.C.T., 415 Geary Street in San Francisco. For information or tickets, call 415-749-2228 or visit ACT-SF.org.

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