Winning a Pulitzer Prize sweatsPlaying hard in Alley in association with Ensemble Theatre, playwright Lynn Nottage keeps the Crucible of America simmering until the exact moment it must break. A baseball bat hit the table by curling guard Stan to warn his regulars to cool off becomes, like Chekhov’s proverbial pistol, the weapon of choice. It should swing. The effect is to shatter the American dream.
We are in Reading, Pennsylvania, one of the poorest cities of our size in the country. The Steel Factory is owned, and all the characters have worked there since high school or before. Their parents worked there, as did their parents. It’s mindless hard work, but it gives them a sense of purpose and accomplishment and the ability to pay the rent and have a fairly decent life. It even supports their dreams – an education for their children, a cruise to Jamaica, and a road trip to Florida. But what it does not offer is a way out.
Downsizing, NAFTA, corporate greed, empty promises by politicians, drug lure, racial tensions on the verge of collapsing, cheap labor elsewhere, cheap labor here – all begin to choke these forgotten Americans. Over the course of eight years beginning in 2000, the play highlights fault lines under society’s relentless march into the abyss. Everyone is on edge. Who goes first?
What keeps everyone going is Stan’s Bar, a much-used, worn-out watering hole where factory workers gather to grab, gossip, celebrate birthdays and, eventually, pick at each other’s husks to draw blood. It is an airtight community at first, a place of refuge and rest after daily hardship.
Stan (Chris Hutchison) supervises the dive, dispensing pearls of vulgar wisdom. He also worked at the factory until an accident disfigured his leg. Tracy (Elizabeth Bunch), Jesse (Melissa Pritchett) and Cynthia (Michelle Ellen) are the female trio. They work on the factory floor, they are as tough as men. Ask them, if you dare. They can drink anyone under the table, if they are not already there.
Jason, son of Tracy (Dylan Goodwin), and Chris, son of Cynthia (Derek J. Brent II) are the best buds who also work in the plant. Chris has plans to move forward…someday; Jason just wants enough money to buy a motorcycle and then just stays where he is. Oscar (Luis Quintero) is a barbback, who freaks out in the background, invisible to the bone. It will not stay in the shade for long. Brucie (Shawn Hamilton), Cynthia’s estranged husband, finds his drug escapade a disturbing reminder to everyone just how low one can fall from so low.
Parole officer Evan (David Rainey) began the play in Present, 2008, separately interviewing Jason and Chris upon their release from prison. Jason was marked with a fanatical white tattoo. While Chris sticks to the Bible. What happened to put them in prison? For now, Nottage subtly leaves that question open. Like her playwright, she will tease us all the time. Before the scene turns on the turntable, the lost Jason pleads wistfully, “What’s going on?” He really doesn’t know.
Nottage keeps her drama smooth, changing perspectives as everyone says. There are quite a few romantic cults that slow the momentum down, but their premise is pretty tight and certain that these are minor flare-ups in the bigger picture you paint so brilliantly with acid. Racial tensions rise when Cynthia gets a promotion to the front office. Cynthia Black’s advances were once inseparable friends, and he inevitably nibbles on White Tracy. When the factory sells half of its inventory, the workers cast Cynthia as Judas. They strike with us, they demand. But it is too late. The factory shuts them down, hires scabies to replace them, and Oscar, a Colombian-American, gets his dream job on the factory floor. Overjoyed and proud of her accomplishment, Cynthia, after the final restructuring of the plant, also became unemployed. The pot is at a full boil, and the end and conclusion is a burn.
The production was set up (jointly with hits and tumbles by Rob Melrose, artistic director of Alley, and Eileen Morris, artistic director of Ensemble) by Michael Locher’s rust belt tape, below street level, Kevin Rigdon’s fluorescent accents, and Erica Grace’s appropriate thrift store costumes. . The actors are exceptional, cheating every angry outburst or failed hope with quick silver despair. Notable performances from Shaun Hamilton’s heartbroken punk Bruce and horribly toxic Jason Dylan Goodwin lead the way to Hell on Earth.
This long-running play, lasting about two hours and forty minutes with an intermission, is irreparably grim as the initial camaraderie turns stifling No Exit. This is a kitchen sink drama with a painful punch. bold and real, sweats It does not take prisoners. You will never look at a maintenance guy, cleaning lady or factory toil exactly the same way. This unshakable autopsy of a de-industrialized America and the human devastation that followed is a chilling picture of what happened. May you shiver well, dear God, what else is on the horizon?
The race runs until October 24 at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. All recipients must provide a negative Covid-19 test or proof of vaccination prior to entry. Masks required. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $30 – $61.