Is it against the law to burn down your own house?
That's a topic of discussion early on in Lynn Nottage's Sweat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama staged by Pittsburgh Public Theater now through Dec. 9. A union worker, deep in debt and losing shifts, burned down his home in an act of drunken desperation and may now face charges for the fire.
A group of fellow factory workers drinking at their local haunt philosophize on the injustice and irony of charging an unemployed homeless man with the destruction of his only property. Later in the scene, they laugh about another worker who tried to commit suicide but was too drunk to shoot himself in the head and ended up taking off his ear. That may not sound particularly funny, but Nottage's script and a group of impressive actors have a way of wriggling a weird, sardonic charm out of the bleak setting.
These heavy drinking Reading, Pa. union workers are the focus of Sweat, which tells their stories in two intervals, 2000 and 2008. In the former, signs of their doomed industry abound but the crew is still relatively upbeat, spending most of their time outside of work at the aforementioned bar. The ribbing and shit-talking are incessant, but there's serious love between the folks in this ensemble. There's Cynthia, Tracey, and Jessie, three middle-aged friends, each with decades at the factory, mulling a potential promotion to management; Cynthia's son Chris and Tracey's son Jason, best friends just starting what they think will be lifelong careers; Tracey's struggling ex Brucie; and the bartender Stan, a former factory worker who retired early thanks to a work injury.
By 2008, the feisty, affectionate energy between these characters is long gone. The alcoholism, drug abuse, resentment, and racism that bubbled under the surface when things were good have boiled over now that the work has dried up. It's a dreary, all too believable evolution.
Beyond that, it's best to go into Sweat without knowing too much. The production, directed by Justin Emeka, is packed with unexpected delights and unpleasant surprises, delivered expertly by this ensemble. There are too many noteworthy dynamics in this network of characters to list here. But among the most memorable are the complex friendships between the three women (Tracey Conyer Lee, Amy Landis, and Michelle Duffy) and the two young men (Patrick Cannon and Ananias J. Dixon). Unsentimental and unsanitized, these relationships play out with a mesmerizing realism that helps anchor the more distant storylines about labor disputes and presidential elections. Those real-life plot points loom over the world these people inhabit, but the real magic of Sweat comes from a place much deeper and more intimate than that. It's a powerful show that'll stick to you long after you've left the theater.