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‘Sweat’ review: Lynn Nottage’s hard look at Rust Belt characters

Johanna Day and Michelle Wilson in the foreground,

Johanna Day and Michelle Wilson in the foreground, with Carlo Alban and Miriam Shor in back in "Sweat," written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Kate Whoriskey, running at the Public Theater. Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “Sweat”

WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

INFO $85; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org

BOTTOM LINE Slice of life, sliced painfully thin, in Lynn Nottage’s powerful blue-collar drama

There’s no need to ask the factory workers who come alive in “Sweat” how they feel about NAFTA, or global trade or, perhaps, even the presidential election.

You see, these are people based on relationships Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage and her longtime director Kate Whoriskey made during trips to Reading, Pennsylvania, one of the poorest cogs in the Rust Belt. And what happened to those people from 2000 to 2008 — lost jobs, busted unions, cheap labor in Mexico — are the realities that made very different futures from the ones that generations of line workers expected from their company town.

We know such stories from the occasional news feature that ventures into industrial towns that capitalism forgot. But Nottage, whose “Ruined” made the nightmares of women in the Congo Civil War indelibly real, goes beyond the headlines of blue-collar plight.

Thanks to an excellent cast and an ace design team, we get close to slices of vivid life, sliced very thin, so the proud bones and the broken hearts become visible under the ordinary structure of the straightforward, naturalistic plot with its leisurely exposition.

At the center, but hardly alone, are three factory friends (Johanna Day, Michelle Wilson, Miriam Shor — women and mothers whose community extends from the factory floor to the comfortable bar where everybody knows more than their names. There are rumors of layoffs, a lockout that already is destroying one of their husbands (John Earl Jelks) and lots of heavy-drinking nostalgia about the lost status of people who worked with their hands.

The situation is hardly a news flash. What make the play so powerful are the details of lives before and after decisions from Washington that seem so dry and distant on the little TV above the bar.

Also twisting in the economic tangles are racial ramifications. When the black woman gets picked to be a supervisor, it is hard to ignore the possibility that she was chosen to deliver all the bad news. When the Latino busboy (Carlo Alban) becomes a scab, we are reminded that the union that protected these people historically excluded others.

The story begins at the end in 2008, when two of the women’s grown sons — marvelously played by Khris Davis and Will Pullen — are being released from prison. For all the modern technology that spins the scenes with a cinematic sweep, this is an old-fashioned Depression-era drama. The depression, however, is ours.

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