Luis Hernandez: Sweat is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage that was inspired by the story of regular folk in Reading, Pennsylvania. These were blue-collar workers who were losing their jobs and falling victim to globalization. Let’s pick up where the story starts…which is in a bar where a Black parole officer is interviewing a young white man who is recently out of prison. Describe a little of the scene.

James Baumgartner: It’s shocking at first because as the lights come up, we see that the white man has Nazi tattoos on his face and neck. We learn that he committed a crime eight years ago, and now that he’s out of prison he’s having trouble getting his life back together. The scene shifts to the parole officer talking with a young black man, also just out of prison after 8 years. We learn that the two young men were friends and were both involved in the incident, although we won’t learn what happened until near the end of the play.

Hernandez: How would you describe the set and the role it played in telling the story?

Baumgartner: Everything takes place at a neighborhood bar, which is the hangout spot for a group of friends who work at the local mill. Substance abuse is in the background of the play specifically the abuse of opioids by one character, although almost everybody else is drinking throughout the play. But this bar is their home, and the bartender is the peacekeeper among the friends.

Hernandez: The story jumps from 2008 to 2000. We basically follow a group of friends from this community as their lives unravel, in line with the shifting tides of the company they work for. Was there a particular aspect of the story that jumped out at you?

Baumgartner: It’s really the conflict between the group of friends. Early on, we see how close they are to each other, how they love each other and stick up for each other. But when things go bad at the mill where they all work, there’s resentment and conflict as their way of life slips away.

Hernandez: Were there any performances that really stood out to you?

Baumgartner: There were several Erik Robles and Conor Delaney played the two young men and throughout the play. We know that they are going to commit a crime, but they play the parts with a depth and complexity that makes the audience sympathetic to them. But the real standout is Casey Seymour Kim who plays Tracey, one of the friends who works on the factory floor. Her performance is so nuanced and natural that I lost myself as I was engrossed in her story.

Hernandez: The play debuted in 2015. How does this story fit into the world we are living in today?

Baumgartner: There are short voiceovers between scenes to let you know what day and year it is, and they include a brief headline: things like a drop in the stock market, or the approval of the 2008 bank bailout. We hear about these large economic shifts and billions of dollars on Wall Street, and then we see working people struggling after losing their jobs. Or turning on their neighbors over a difference of a few dollars an hour in pay, because it means that they won’t be able to pay the rent. These were economic shocks from a few years ago, but they are similar to what we see today, and we know we’ll see more in the future.

Hernandez: What was the audience response to the emotion in the story?

Baumgartner: There were gasps during the big moments of the play, and an enthusiastic ovation at the end. And I agree, it was a great performance.

Hernandez: All right, you can see “Sweat” at The Gamm Theatre through November 27th.

The Gamm Theatre is a business supporter of The Public’s Radio. The Public’s Radio makes its coverage decisions independent of business support.