Rage and Laughter, 'Sweat' and Tears :: Jennifer Regan on Lynn Nottage's Play About American Workers Betrayed

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday January 29, 2020

With newspapers trumpeting low unemployment stats every day, there's more than a little disconnect to the other headlines we see: Layoffs, crippling debt, hollowed-out towns in middle America, the ongoing opioid addiction crises, and — so the received wisdom goes — the voter rage that ushered the current president into office, rage with roots in American workers feeling forsaken and abandoned by politics as usual and desperate for something new.

Lynn Nottage's 2015 play "Sweat" won the Pulitzer prize, and it's easy to see why. The play feels like a cri de coeur from the very heart of these politically and economically paradoxical times, but it's more than a prescient warning: It's a clear-eyed, accessible, and unforced examination of the terrible cost and carnage that powerful financial institutions wreak when they prioritize the fatness of the bottom line over the well-being of communities. Corporations may be people in an abstract legal sense, but what they sometimes do to the flesh-and-blood variety of people is unconscionable and downright inhuman - something that Nottage's play is very direct and unstinting in making clear.

"Sweat" takes place across two time periods — 2000 and 2008, notably election years bracketing the George W. Bush-era — and its ability, and willingness, to present us with a stark before-and-after contrast of a slice of America identified as the blue-collar steel mill town of Reading, Pennsylvania, makes this feel not like fiction or ripped-from-the-headlines running commentary, but history in the making — history, that is, in the full, far-reaching sense of the word.
That history is, for the employees of a steel mill where the workers face strong-arm tactics and union-busting aggression, potentially ruinous. Lives and legacies are about to be destroyed in cost-cutting, profit-margin enhancing ways that see the town's prosperity funneled up and away, to distant beneficiaries, while the locals are left behind to fend for themselves in a situation where desperation has ugly side effects. The lives that are wrecked as a result are tied inextricably together by chains of rage, betrayal, and lashing out. What's happening today, Nottage seems to be telling us, will have consequences that echo through many a tomorrow.

But the play's politics don't come at the cost of deeper and more genuine human feelings. This examination is bolstered by anger, but informed by compassion; the writing — as cast member Jennifer Regan noted to EDGE in a recent chat — is graceful and accomplished, offering us (and the actors in the production) characters with dimension and authenticity, rather than mere straw men and women.

Regan plays Tracey, a lifelong resident of Reading and, like most of the town, the latest in a line of generations that has worked at the local mill. When the ground begins to shift beneath her, Tracey - like the other characters - struggles for something to hold tight to; unfortunately, if understandably, some of what she finds to cling to blame, and longtime friend Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie) - a fellow floor worker who recently got a job in management - makes for a convenient target.

Regan is a veteran of Broadway ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," "Born Yesterday") and the West End ("The Lady from Dubuque"), as well as the silver screen ("My Dead Boyfriend"). On TV, Regan and is a recurring presence on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," where she plays attorney Kim Caldwell, and has also had recurring roles in fun fare like "Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter" and "The Heart, She Holler."

Now she is in Boston, joining actors from around the country, as well as some of the cream of Boston's homegrown crop of stage talent. EDGE had the pleasure — and privilege — of hearing what Jennifer Regan had to say about the play, her castmates, and these ever-so-strange days we're living through.

EDGE: Looking at your bio, it seems you have not worked with the Huntington Theater before or appeared on Boston stages before now — so what brought you here for this play?

Jennifer Regan: The play. Definitely!

[Laughter]

Jennifer Regan: I have spent time in Boston. I did an out of town tryout of a play at the Wilbur before we moved it back to New York. And then I did another workshop in Boston a few years later. But yeah, this is my first official production [in Boston].

Boston is an amazing town! But, truly, the play and the role [were the attraction]. It as, "Yeah. You've got to give that a try once in your life if you can." I was very, very lucky that my amazing director, Kimberly Senior, said, "Yes, you may come and work here."

[Laughter]

EDGE: Boston is an amazing town, and you are working with some of Boston's top talent. What has that experience been like?

Jennifer Regan: It's really wonderful — it's a great group of people. There are Chicago actors, here are Boston actors, and there are New York actors. Everybody's been like, "Oh, hello! How's it where you live, how's work where you work?" And there's a common language, but also a different sensibility. People approach working slightly differently. It's very exciting! You start to crack open different ways of thinking about things. It's very flattering — the level of talent in his show is really amazing!

EDGE: This is a play that cries out for some special talent to give it the reality, but also the heart, that's written into it.

Jennifer Regan: It's another compliment to Lynn Nottage's play that she's written characters that actually do have their own ways of speaking, The actors have really picked up on that. Sometimes you can see a play and it's, "Everybody's definitely the same, or they come for the same voice." With this, they are all very different people, and all the other actors — Tyla [Abercrumbie] and Brandon [G. Green] and Shane [Kenyon] and Maurice [Emmanuel Parent] and Tommy [Rivera-Vega] and Guy [Van Swearingen], they all have very clearly different voices. You do see a very strong cross-section of what you would call America.

EDGE: So the cast has come from far and wide. Are you meshing well?

Jennifer Reagan: Yes — we have a weekly poker match. I have never walked away a winner. We go out, we go and see other shows, and people love to walk around this town. I went on the Fenway Park tour, which was amazing.

And everyone is very kind. The rehearsal room is a very generous one. Kimberly will try things and then she goes around to every single actor and says, "Okay, what are you thinking? What's working for you, and what's not working for you? What are your concerns, and what did you like?" Everybody's really bending over backward to try and make very hard play as embracing as possible for each other because we are not kind to each other in the show.

EDGE: This is a remarkable play for a lot of reasons, but one thing I find truly striking is the way the scenes are each introduced with a kind of rundown of significant things happening on that date — things that might give a background to what the characters are saying and doing. What are your approaches for integrating that scene-setting material?

Jennifer Reagan: Those are voiceovers, so the audience gets a sense of where they are in time. Because, you know, we jump back and forth, from 2000 to 2008. Nothing progresses in just a straight linear fashion, so those voiceovers are very helpful for the audience, to set where we are and what's going on in the world as we enter into that specific scene. It's also useful for us as actors, because we're going, "Right — right — right! This is what's going on. Okay." Because in one scene you're eight years younger, but in another scene, eight years have gone by, and the world is very different. To remember now, in 2010, what was going on in 2008 and 2000... it does inform the scene in terms of this pressure coming in from the outside on this town, and what the characters feel pushing down on them or being ripped away from them. You're like, "Oh right, that's what was going on, and that's what they are having to push back on, or deal with, or run away from."

EDGE: Sure. Your character probably heard about this stuff on the news that morning and it affects their mood and their outlook. I hear the news these days, and it definitely has an effect on me.

Jennifer Reagan: Exactly — that's exactly right. This is not a large town, and a lot of the rumor/gossip / what you hear on the radio, you're like, "Wait, what? Whoa, that's crazy!" And a lot of these characters are thinking that this is happening to somebody else. These events are outside of heir experience, so there's a lot of, "Oh, gee, that's a shame," and "Oh, that's really tough." There are blinders on, where they think, "This is the other. This is not me, this is the other." And when it starts happening to them, they're not prepared to deal with it. We were having a conversation earlier on about how some of these characters are like Cassandra — they're speaking the truth, and they're giving warnings, and nobody believes them. You just see the world starting to encroach on them.

EDGE: Cassandra is right. This play premiered in 2015, and yet it's been held up as an example of Trump era socio-economic analysis.

Jennifer Reagan: And it's still going on. It's terrifying how accurate this play is to 2020. I don't know if you've seen the documentary "American Factory?" It's on Netflix. The Obamas have a production company, and this is their first foray. I watched it the other week, and it is so applicable to this play that was written half a decade ago. It is just — it breaks your heart. We just keep doing [the same thing] — nothing so far has significantly changed. These lives, these very honorable and dignified lives of the American factory worker are literally being taken away from them.

Another thing I like about Lynn Nottage's play is that these characters, some of them, are not likable characters. They come from a world where you don't agree with them or see the world their way and think it's horrifying that they see the world that way, but she has not written a character that is just simply black or white. Everybody has an argument to be made, or a dignity to them on some level. I think there are some characters that are definitely more right and live in a more positive, forward place, but I thank Lynn Nottage for just making it, "You're all bad, and you're all good!" The really good characters do unkind things, and the really bad characters so show kindness.

EDGE: Your character, Tracey, embodies her share of both good and bad traits, She's a complicated character. Even when she's doing something ugly or destructive, you can see where she's coming from; and I know people like her, people she reminds me of. Are you drawing on people you know for your interpretation of Tracey?

Jennifer Reagan: You know, not politically, but in some personality [traits]. I know people that, they like being the big fish in the small pond; they enjoy kind of a magnanimous view of their clan and their friends, but they always think of themselves as "the leader," and when that gets threatened — when your position on your group starts to change — that can be terrifying. And then, add on top to that your whole life is being taken away from you. Tracy does say at one point in the play, "When my unemployment runs out, I will have nothing." And that's not an exaggeration. Their health benefits are going; their retirement benefits are going; their pensions are going. You look at yourself if you're 45 to 50 years old [and you get laid off], and you're literally starting at zero. Who is going to hire you, to [allow you to] start over again? You don't have any time. I think Tracey starts operating from a place of abject fear at a certain point. That makes her so aggressively hostile and starts bringing up a lot of the stuff about race and economics that have been sitting under the surface that everyone has been able to ignore because everything had been okay. But as soon as things start not being okay, things start to come up because you're looking for someplace to lay blame because you're just so damn terrified.

EDGE: What's also interesting and poignant is that Tracey isn't just worried about not having any money; you mentioned the dignity of work a minute ago, and she's not going to have that. It comes out in what she says that she's very troubled by not having a job, financial issues aside.

Jennifer Reagan: Yes, definitely, and I think that's a factor for every character in the play — having someplace to go when you get up in the morning. Tyla's character, Cynthia — and she's just brilliant in the role — she thinks forward, she pushes forward. And she even manages to get through what happens to the factory. She rises, whereas Tracey succumbs and falls. Cynthia's character says, "I'm a worker; I've got to keep busy." So, Cynthia is able to go past what's happened to her and move forward. Tracey says the same thing: "I'm a worker. I'm a worker." But her world view and who she is pushes her down. And also, for [Cynthia's husband] Brucie, when his factory closes [and he resorts to drugs]... when you see all these people respond differently to the same set of circumstances, it's heartbreaking. This play is such a fine piece of work.

EDGE How do you gird yourself and work yourself up into a place where you can channel Tracey's mix of hopelessness and volatility and anger?

Jennifer Reagan: I think we've all, at some point in our lives, thought: "Why didn't I get that?" Like, "I wrote a really good story; I can't believe they didn't take that." Or, "That was a really good audition!" Or you have a fear of how you're going to make the rent that month, especially, you know, in my world. I have a certain understanding of that on some level, but as far as all the rest of it... you just kinda got to go. I follow the words a lot, and I do like to hug Tyla at the end of some very hard scenes. We hug each other so it doesn't stay in you. And then I go to a spin class!

[Laughter]

I do! But Lynn Nottage has written a play that — it's hard to go there, but you feel like you're cheating the play if you don't actually do the thing. And if you try to apologize for your character it makes it so that you're not serving the play. And the play deserves that — it deserves your full service and your full commitment. If you hedge your bets on it, it's not going to be as fine an experience for anybody watching it.

EDGE Something that I think crystallizes Tracey — and I think Tracey crystallizes the whole play with this — is that at a couple of points she says, "You're changing the rules!" This seems really to be the nub of her rage and hostility. It's probably exactly the same nub for a lot of people in the same straits as she's in, and the reason so many people in this country are so angry.

Jennifer Reagan: Yeah. They did everything they were supposed to do. They did everything right. And they're still ending up here. They bought into the system, they paid the union dues, they showed up for long shifts, and all they want is to live a solid, good, safe existence, and retire and feel that they put in their 30-some-odd years of work, and that is recognized and rewarded. And not even rewarded, but just, they are given their due. And to have all that ripped away from you - yeah, it's terrifying, and it's rage-inducing. There are lines in the play where they say [the factory management] wants them to accept a 60% pay cut, and also they're going to cut your pension as well. And it's like, "I'm sorry, but think about what you make, and if somebody took 60% of that." And you're like, "But I did everything I was supposed to do. I didn't come in late. I didn't shirk my responsibilities. I didn't do anything that should be met with punishment." Think about people out there in Pennsylvania and in Wisconsin — they really are doing everything they have been asked to do, and more, and they are still getting beaten down. That is so so unfair. You just cry into the wind.

EDGE: This play has so many great relationships between the characters — ties that don't necessarily have a lot of verbiage around them, but they come across so strongly.

Jennifer Reagan: Like the character of Jessie — Marianna [Bassham] is so brilliant in the role. She doesn't have a lot to say except for a lovely, long passage that she has, but she has created a character that is so specific and so endearing, and such frickin' fun to watch! Just with a few lines here and there, it's a whole person, and you know who that person is immediately.

And also Oscar [played by Tommy Rivera-Vega] — he's in almost every scene in the bar, and has almost no dialogue for a lot of the play, and then has a lot to say and a lot to do. But he has such presence... again, [he's got] almost no dialogue, but you know what's going on with him; you know what he thinks about what everybody else is talking about, and you can see how it starts to motivate him, just being a fly on the wall.

And also, Alvin [Keith], playing Brucie — he has a certain number of scenes, but within those, you see the descent of a human being and, in a very short period of time, it's really full-bodied work.

Again, praise to Lynn Nottage, but also to those actors. Yeah, they're good!

EDGE: What other projects might you have on the horizon?

Jennifer Reagan: Well, it's a whole thing called auditioning...

[Laughter]

Jennifer Reagan: I'm lucky enough to get invited back on "Law and Order" when they need me — I haven't been able to get back there because I've been here in Boston, so hopefully they won't forget me and I'll be back there, being a lawyer, defending the downtrodden... or, not so downtrodden, depending on which episode it is.

[Laughter]

Jennifer Reagan: And, yeah, there's such a good amount of theater coming up in New York, where I'm based. I'll see where the day takes me.


"Sweat" runs Jan. 31 — March 1 at the Huntington Theatre. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2019-2020/sweat/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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