"Sweat," at The Pear in Mountain View, is a play to treasure and savor, not only for the brilliance of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning script but also for the stunning excellence of most of the performances.
The story begins with two men -- one white, one black -- recently released from prison and meeting with their parole officer.
The white man, full of anger, has Nazi tattoos on his face and neck, received, apparently, when he was in prison. The black man is emotionally confused but seems nice enough, and talks about having run into the white man and giving him a hug.
That scene is set in 2008. Then a couple of walls are winged out on Kevin Davies' flexible set and we are in 2000, in a bar, for a birthday party. Televisions mounted behind the bar tell us the date.
Devin Cunningham, as the young black man, Chris, and Jonathan Covey, as the young white man, Jason, are best friends. No tattoos (Covey must have spent a lot of time in front of a mirror between scenes, with the help of costume and makeup designer Kathleen Qiu). Diamonds in Chris' ears, Air Jordans on his feet. He's hoping to go to college and his friends tell him to stay in Reading, Pennsylvania, and work in the plant, like everyone else.
It's party for Jessie, played by the always appealing Kristin Walter. Bartender Stan (Tom Gough) warns Jessie's girlfriends -- Alicia Stamps as Cynthia and Kristin Brownstone as Tracey -- they shouldn't drink anymore, but they say it's OK, because Jessie is their designated driver. Trouble is, Jessie is already passed out, her "happy birthday" tiara barely holding on.
The play advances through the year 2000, as Cynthia and Tracey, exhausted by years of working on the floor of the mill, both apply for a management job.
Cynthia's ex, Brucie (Fred Pitts), has already been walking a picket line where he used to work, but was locked out when he took the union's side. Everybody else plans their lives around the money they think will always be theirs because of their union jobs at the mill.
But then management moves half the mill's equipment to Mexico, and demands pay cuts for the workers left behind. A strike and a lockout happen, and misery becomes the norm. When Cynthia gets the management job, her old friends hate her. When the bar's busboy, Oscar (Armando Torres), crosses the picket line for a mill job that pays a little better than his bar job, real trouble happens.
Massive kudos to Caroline Clark, who has done a brilliant job directing this very difficult play, which bounces between years, as the story develops emotionally, not historically. And Clark works magic in getting everyone in the cast to find their way with their characterizations.
Pitts is amazing to watch as Brucie, a man who walked a union line for way too long, and who is so broken and drug-dependent that he pitifully bows and scrapes to his grown son to beg for money. It's like a symphony of emotions in Pitts' expressions and body movement. There must be a thousand things he does with his eyes, his face, his body, to make Brucie come alive. It is a stunning performance, perhaps the best in a non-musical I've seen this year.
James "G" Glass is wonderful as Evan, the parole officer. A sergeant first class in the U.S. Army, stationed in Mountain View, Glass only started acting this year. He only has a few scenes but is very impressive in all that he does. He is physically imposing and threatening when talking to Jason but has sincere kindness in his eyes when talking with Chris, who is just trying to figure out how he can get his life back together.
Brownstone is intimidating as Tracey, who becomes more angry and embittered as the show goes on.
The last scene in 2000 shows us what put Jason and Chris in prison. The final, heart-breaking, scene in 2008 shows us the tragic truth of what can happen when broken people fight, instead of finding a way to survive together.
"Sweat" is a powerful tragedy about the American blue-collar worker, used up and abandoned by companies that increased their profits by taking jobs away from American factory workers. These workers just want to do their jobs and live their lives and are shocked as they learn how little their bosses care about them. Nottage's play brilliantly explores human dynamics of American workers, touching on desperation, poverty and racism. It completely earned its Pulitzer Prize. The Pear's production should be in line for plenty of Bay Area theater awards itself.
Freelance writer John Orr can be emailed at [email protected]
Where: The Pear, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View.
When: Through Nov. 10. Showtimes vary.
Info: The Pear.