Cleveland Play House’s new drama Sweat may be set five hours away in Reading, Pennsylvania, but the crumbling industrial community at its center is one countless Clevelanders can recognize.
“For a long time in between the boom and now this revitalization, downtown was dead,” says Laura Kepley, artistic director at Cleveland Play House. “For the characters in [Sweat], in Reading, Pennsylvania, their downtown is dead, and it doesn’t look like it’s coming back.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play follows a working-class group of friends who labor together in the same factory and drink together at the same bar. Switching between 2000 and 2008, Sweat makes human the aftershocks of deindustrialization, pairing scenes of the factory workers’ happy toasts with later conversations about plant layoffs, picket lines, racial tensions and arguments between friends applying for the same desperately needed management job. The Tony-nominated drama reflects the blue-collar populations often referenced in political abstract, but brings them close enough to grow as familiar as your next-door neighbor.
Playing at the Outcalt Theatre until Nov. 4, the show is designed so the 280 seats surround the stage from three sides — allowing audience members to feel like they’re sitting at the bar with the cast.
“It’s set in a three-quarter thrust, which means the audience will be able to see other audience members across the bar,” says Kepley. “This play is about community, and the way we’re able to do the set design and configure the theater really reminds everybody seeing the play that they are part of a community.”
Although many in Cleveland have found a sunnier future, Sweat’s blue-collar struggles are universal enough to resonate throughout the Rust Belt.
“You will experience the emotional ride going through, but this is a play that will stay with audiences,” says Kepley. “It may change how they look at their city and the people around them.”