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ACT’s ‘Sweat’ compassionately deconstructs American Dream

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Tonye Patano, left, and Lise Bruneau appear in American Conservatory Theater’s “Sweat.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

“Three generations of loyalty to the same company,” says Stan (Rod Gnapp), the level-headed bartender, in the first act of Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “Sweat.” “This is America, right? You’d think that would mean something … Bottom line, they don’t understand that human decency is at the core of everything.”

“They” are the fat cats who run the steel plant in Reading, Penn., where the bar’s denizens have worked all their adult lives.

At the turn of the 21st century, those workers find out just how expendable they are.

Nottage (the searing “Ruined” and other plays) has undertaken an estimable task in this powerful play: to pinpoint and deeply personalize the failure of the American dream as experienced by all eight main characters (the ninth is the small role of a probation officer, nicely portrayed by Adrian Roberts).

She interviewed citizens of Reading to gather material.

Nottage mostly achieves that goal, as seen in American Conservatory Theater’s beautifully designed production, superbly acted by a multicultural cast and directed by Loretta Greco with endless compassion and attention to the script’s nuances, including humor, and to the larger societal issues at stake (poverty, inequality, racism).

Set mostly in an elegantly designed (by Andrew Boyce) bar, where a group of factory workers meets regularly to get drunk, dance and celebrate birthdays, the play jumps back and forth from 2000 to 2008, contrasting, through projections, the changing political landscape.

The havoc those changes have wrought on this group of blue-collar friends slowly gathers force and by the end is devastating.

In reading the script (published by Dramatists Play Service in 2018), I was most captivated by the intense, doomed relationship between the two tough main women: Tracey (Lise Bruneau), who’s white, and her best friend, Cynthia (Tonye Patano), who’s African-American.

But in fact the play is mainly about the men, including the women’s respective sons, Jason and Chris, who are also best friends (played by David Darrow and Kadeem Ali Harris); Cynthia’s desperate estranged husband, Brucie (Chiké Johnson); and the bus boy, Oscar (Jed Parsario).

That’s fine, and, of course, most steelworkers are men.

But by the time Brucie and Chris had their heart-to-heart toward the end of the long play, it felt like too many characters to care about — although I admit I’d have liked to see more of the third woman, Jessie, played by Sarah Nina Hayon.

REVIEW
Sweat
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 21
Tickets: $15 to $110
Contact: (415) 749-2228, act-sf.org

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