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When middle-class life is no longer an option

What happens when the American Dream unravels, when the middle-class lifestyle is forever out of reach?

“Sweat,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, examines the human cost of lost jobs and shrinking wages in contemporary working-class Reading, Penn. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival production is its world premiere, with previews beginning July 29 and opening Aug. 2 in the Bowmer Theatre.

“This play is about the moment when the middle-class disappears,” says Julie Felise Dubiner, dramaturg for “Sweat.”

The conflicts depicted in “Sweat” come directly out of today’s headlines — the real-life consequences of the ongoing political debate over income inequality, right-to-work laws and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement among Asian-Pacific nations.

“Sweat” is set in 2000. Two families, one black, one white, work at a local factory. The plant’s union workers, striking after labor negotiations failed, are locked out. They have been replaced by nonunion employees willing to work for much less money and no benefits. Absentee factory owners pit worker against worker. The threat of the factory simply moving operations to Mexico hangs over everyone. Drugs and alcohol have become a refuge for the unemployed.

The local tavern is the meeting place, the haven for these people. The bartender is a former factory worker who landed the job after an on-the-job injury. The busboy is a young American-born Dominican whose dream is working at the factory for a living wage.

When tensions rise as some workers lose their jobs and others marginally get ahead, an interracial clash — black vs. white vs. Hispanic — irrevocably tears apart the social fabric.

“This is where it stops for them,” says Dubiner. “This is the moment when a middle-class life is no longer available as an option.”

“Sweat” is a co-commission by OSF with Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. It is the seventh play to be produced as part of OSF’s project "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle." The program, begun by Artistic Director Bill Rauch in 2008, commissions plays that illustrate significant moments of change in American history.

Kate Whoriskey makes her OSF directing debut with “Sweat.” She is a veteran director with credits from Broadway and regional theaters, including New York’s Public Theater and Circle in the Square, the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, and South Coast Repertory in Orange County, California.

This is the fourth play by Lynn Nottage to be produced at OSF. Previous productions were “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” in 2000, “Intimate Apparel” in 2006, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ruined” in 2010.

“Sweat” stars OSF veterans Kevin Kenerly, K.T. Vogt, Kimberly Scott, Terri McMahon, Jack Willis and Tyrone Wilson, along with OSF newcomer Carlo Albán.

Nottage based “Sweat” on interviews she and Whoriskey did with residents of today’s Reading. They talked to the people who saw their livelihoods lost when union workers were locked out, wages reduced and benefits eliminated.

Over the past 20 years, the city of 88,000, formerly a major East-West railroad hub halfway between Philadelphia and the state capital at Harrisburg, saw a steady decline in its livability. The decline began after World War II as freight delivery moved from railroad to trucking, and manufacturing companies shuttered in droves. Hispanic immigrants from New York and Philadelphia moved in and competed for the remaining manufacturing jobs.

Passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 was another nail in industrial Reading’s coffin. Outsourcing of manufacturing jobs escalated. Then the 2008 recession finished the city off. The 2010 U.S. Census showed 41.3 percent of Reading living below the poverty line, and data for 2011 officially placed Reading as the poorest city in the United States.

Reading is now in the process of reinventing itself. There has been a modest revival as the town uses its location between major urban centers to attract high-end outlet stores and its surrounding natural beauty to lure tourists.

Nottage, working with New York’s Labyrinth Theater Company, is participating in Reading’s metamorphosis with “This is Reading,” a multimedia project to explore the town’s decline and rebirth through local participation in the arts.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

Kimberly Scott plays Cynthia in 'Sweat,' about a Pennsylvania town whose social fabric is torn apart by a clash among blacks, Hispanics and whites during a labor strike. OSF photo by Jenny Graham
Julie Felise Dubiner, dramaturg for “Sweat” OSF photo