The story of Reading, Pennsylvania at the turn of the 21st century is by now a familiar one: workers fighting for their jobs as the mills and factories that supported them falter.
The story of Reading and its people – their unions, their hopes, dreams and fears – is told in Sweat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Lynn Nottage which comes to Riverwalk Theatre October 3-6 and 10-13.
“It’s a play about people they don’t write plays about,” said George Popovich, who directs Sweat at Riverwalk. “It’s gritty; it’s real.”
Popovich spent part of his childhood in Youngstown, Ohio, which also rose to 20th century prosperity as a steel town, where there was always a smell of burning coal in the air and his grandfather carried a black lunch pail to work at the mill.
“That’s kind of what got me into this,” he said of directing Sweat. But multiple themes examined in the play give it a broad appeal, including economic struggles, racial tension, the changing of the middle class and the opioid crisis – heavy topics made human through the characters.
The show is rated R for violence, adult language, adult humor and content.
Don’t expect a downer, though. “There’s a lot of humor,” Popovich said.
He doesn’t think that Sweat comes off as either pro-or anti-union.“You’ve got both sides,” he said..
Reading ’ s population has dwindled since steel- related employment disappeared, and its geography doesn ’ t help attempts to create new prosperity. Tucked between mountains, it’s surrounded by miles of forest and peaks before you get to another city of any size. “It communicates a feeling of being trapped,” Popovich said. “You’ve got to drive for a couple of hours to get somewhere.”
The cast includes Lekeathon Wilson as Chris, Maureen Sawdon as Tracey, Rose Jangmi Cooper as Cynthia, Connor Kelly as Jason, Scott Pohl as Stan, Madeline Nash as Jessie, Edward (Eddie) Heldt as Oscar and Julian Van Dyke as Evan and Brucie.
Popovich can’t say enough about the cast. “This is one of the best energies I’ve ever had in the rehearsal room,” he said. “I really love to go to rehearsals and I can’t say I’ve always said that.”