Theater

‘Sweat’ Returns to Its Rust Belt Roots

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It was cold outside the Miller Center for the Arts in Reading, Pennsylvania, on Dec. 19, but inside the performance space the audience was dripping with “Sweat.”

The just-concluded off-Broadway play by Lynn Nottage, heading to Broadway in March, was taking place before several hundred people.

Reworked as a staged reading, the play — set in Reading and inspired by the 2011 New York Times article labeling the city the poorest in the nation — was a gift to the city from Nottage, who has spent the last five years researching the piece and other artistic endeavors in an attempt to create art out of what she sees as a once-great city drained of hope.

Economic decline has closed factories, just as it has across the Rust Belt, and the characters Nottage has created for “Sweat,” which takes place in a local bar, mirror those laborers who have been left behind in the real world outside the theater.

During the performance, intermittent sobs could be heard throughout the auditorium, people touched by memories of a thriving town that exists only in their hearts. For Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey, who were in the audience, the reaction proved powerful and personal. The actors also wept backstage when the local audience rewarded them with a standing ovation.

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, which produced “Sweat” off-Broadway, introduced the evening. He spoke of taking this skeleton version of the play on tour in the future, “to the red states,” where, he implied alluding to the recent election, the dialogue it generates may help to repair the division and sense of exclusion that has engulfed the nation.

Reviewing the play for the Voice last month, Michael Feingold wrote, “We see not only deeper into the people’s lives but more widely into the causes of their increasingly lousy situation, which their own immediate problems prevent them from grasping.”

The Reading performance of “Sweat” was a presentation of The Public Theater in association with Labyrinth Theater Company, the Miller Center for the Arts at Reading Area Community College, ReadingFilm and the Greater Reading Alliance of Community Theatres.

George Hatza is the Entertainment Editor of the Reading Eagle. He has covered the evolution of the work of Lynn Nottage since her frequent visitations to Reading began in 2011.

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