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Working-class frustrations boil over in a most powerful ‘Sweat’

Mike Cherry (as Jason, from left), André Teamer (Brucie) and Edgar Miguel Sanchez (Chris) in the Chicago premiere of "Sweat" by Lynn Nottage, directed by Ron OJ Parson, at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren Photo

Mike Cherry (as Jason, from left), André Teamer (Brucie) and Edgar Miguel Sanchez (Chris) in the Chicago premiere of "Sweat" by Lynn Nottage, directed by Ron OJ Parson, at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren Photo

Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat” is both a story you already know and one you don’t. That paradox drives the heartbeat of Nottage’s unblinking look at a once-prosperous city bottoming out in an abyss it won’t rise from in the lifetime of its struggling residents. Or, likely, that of their grandchildren.

Set in Reading, Pennsylvania, and alternating between 2000 and 2008, director Ron OJ Parson’s staging of “Sweat” is as familiar as a decade’s worth of headlines. We’ve all heard this all before: Once, you could raise a family on a factory worker’s wage. You could retire with a pension that allowed for a degree of ease. Now, you can’t. It’s hard-knock life story, woven through pop culture by everyone from Jay-Z to Springsteen to “The Big Short” to “The Grapes of Wrath.”

‘Sweat’
★★★★
When: Through April 14
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $20-$80
Info: goodmantheatre.org

Except you haven’t heard all this before. The part you don’t know comes with the mystery Nottage uses to frame “Sweat.” The play, currently at the Goodman Theatre, opens in 2008, as two men meet separately with a parole officer (Ronald L. Conner). Jason (Mike Cherry) is a monosyllabic skinhead. Chris (Edgar Miguel Sanchez) is a black man who was a few credits short of a college degree before going to prison. Somehow, the two are connected. “What we did,” says Chris, was “unforgivable.”

In flipping between 2000 and 2008 (both years marvelously indicated by Richard Woodbury’s sound design), Nottage meticulously builds toward the drama’s climactic violence and the event that landed the men in prison. The years lost by Jason and Chris are only a piece of the elaborate tapestry Nottage weaves into a portrait of the underside of the American Dream.

In exposing that underside, Nottage makes things that are usually invisible, unavoidable. Most of us, for example, can’t see the one-in-eight people in the United States who walk around chronically hungry. Or the one-in-five who don’t have healthcare or (per the Harvard School of Medicine) and the roughly 45,000 of those who literally disappear annually because they don’t.

In 2000 Reading, the workers have just enough security to keep their demons on the back burner and their aspirations fired up on the front: They can pay for college if they work double shifts, they can a buy a Harley if they save, they plan for vacations, make their mortgages. That security makes 2008’s freefall all the more devastating.

The factory isn’t just a workplace, it’s a way of life dating back generations. Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie) and her son Chris work the factory floor. So does Tracey (Kirsten Fitzgerald), like her father and grandfather, and her son Jason. Tracey, Cynthia and the hard-drinking Jessie (Chaon Cross), are “besties,” bound by the shared experience of decades of hard work and idiot bosses.

Kirsten Fitzgerald (as Tracey, from left), Tyla Abercrumbie (as Cynthia) and Chaon Cross (as Jessie) in a scene from "Sweat" at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren Photo

Kirsten Fitzgerald (as Tracey, from left), Tyla Abercrumbie (as Cynthia) and Chaon Cross (as Jessie) in a scene from “Sweat” at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren Photo

Most of the action unfolds at the local watering hole (rendered in atmospheric detail by set designer Kevin Depinet) where Stan (Keith Kupferer) keeps predictably flat beer on tap, and employs Oscar (Steve Casillas), who’d love to work at the factory but can’t because of its unwritten rule against hiring Latinx. Sometimes Cynthia’s on-again, off-again partner Brucie (Andre Teamer) shows up at the bar. Everybody gets along, more or less.

Everything changes when Cynthia gets promoted to management and the factory starts automating. Tracey’s deeply ingrained racism bleeds to the surface like an infected wound. Chris drops out of school. Jason is spoiling for a fight. When management demands the union take a 60 percent pay cut, the rifts become gaping chasms. Problems that were nominally manageable — addiction, depression, anger management — roar out of control. Tensions rise, heating up like molten steel.

Parson’s ensemble works in top form throughout. Abercrumbie turns in a complex, emotive performance, capturing the joy of receiving a hard-won promotion and the bitterness of realizing she’s part of a system that’s destroying the people she loves. Fitzgerald’s Tracey is immensely likable early on, which makes her racism all the more chilling. Among other things Nottage makes unmistakable: Anyone who begins a sentence with “I’m not prejudiced, but…” is.

Cherry’s evolution from Jason-as-cocky young twentysomething to broken, tattooed ex-con is all-too believable. Sanchez’s Chris is also broken and tentative post-prison, a shell of the bright, optimistic, ambitious kid on the come-up years earlier. Kupferer brings his signature Blue Collar Everyman to the romantic yet sleazy Stan, dispensing laconic wisdom (“Sometimes I think we forget that we’re meant to pick up and go when the well runs dry”) and menacing patrons with a baseball bat with equal verve.

In Nottage’s Reading, the workers’ struggle is doomed. They’re people armed with teaspoons facing a mudslide the size of all Appalachia. Globalization, automation, housing bubbles, over-leveraged banks and ballooning stock markets: There’s not a picket line in the world that stands a chance against them. “Sweat” makes their stories audible. Listen.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

Ronald Conner (as Evan, left) and Edgar Miguel Sanchez (as Chris) in a scene from "Sweat" at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren Photo

Ronald Conner (as Evan, left) and Edgar Miguel Sanchez (as Chris) in a scene from “Sweat” at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren Photo