Tony Awards spotlight: Johanna Day bravely embodies thorny character Tracey in “Sweat”

Theater veteran Johanna Day has only made four appearances on Broadway over the course of her long stage career, but she clearly has impeccable taste. Each one of Day’s outings on the Great White Way, including her current, Tony Award-nominated role as Tracey in Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” has been in a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Beginning with her Broadway debut in David Auburn’s “Proof,” for which she landed her first Tony bid, Day went on to appear in Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” as a member of the replacement cast and the most recent revival of the George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart classic “You Can’t Take it With You.” Might her performance in Best Play nominee “Sweat” help Day add a Tony Award to her already prestigious résumé?

Set in the impoverished Reading, Pennsylvania in 2000 and 2008, “Sweat” depicts the ill-effects of deindustrialization on a tight-knit group of modest, industrious factory workers. When they first appear on stage, Day’s Tracey and her best friends and coworkers Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) and Jessie (Alison Wright) seem happy and content, but once rumors of layoffs at their plant circulate and slowly come to fruition, Tracey must confront the changing socioeconomic makeup of her hometown.

As Tracey, Day excels at endearing audiences to her hardworking, yet disillusioned character in spite of her entitlement and thinly-veiled racism. Many of Day’s best scenes center on her struggle to reconcile her nostalgia for the past, when earlier generations took pride in a hard day’s work, with the changing demographic of the neighborhood and workforce. When Hispanic busboy Oscar (Carlo Albán) approaches Tracey with a Spanish-language flier he found advertising positions at her plant, for example, she flagrantly dismisses it because those coveted jobs don’t go to “his kind.” Later, when Cynthia gets a job promotion for which both women applied, Tracey assumes management chose her because she’s African American, not because she’s more qualified.

Despite these irredeemable qualities, Day imbues Tracey with a recognizable and sympathetic humanity. In a standout monologue, Day recounts Tracey’s fond memories of her grandfather, a master craftsman who’s ornate wood carvings used to adorn all of the buildings in town. Day beams with pride and wistfulness when Tracey reflects on the value he ascribed to working with his hands, and laments that so few continue to cherish that quality. In a later confrontation with Cynthia, Day gets to showcase her comedic chops when she tells her friends at the bar a hysterical and poignant story from the early days of their friendship when they took a trip to Atlantic City, underscoring the strength of their bond and its current strain. The role has a hearty dose of pathos, too, as the scenes in 2008 heartbreakingly reveal that Tracey has gone broke feeding an apparent opioid addiction, which began due to the damage that years working the line did to her back. When Tracey gets confronted by her son Jason (Will Pullen), Day deftly balances her stoicism and bitterness about how her life turned out with a heartbreaking glimmer of Tracey’s fear, loneliness, and desperation.

According to Gold Derby’s current combined odds, “Sweat” trails “Oslo” in the Best Play category, so Tony voters may look to recognize the show with a win in the Featured Actress category. While Day’s performance puts her in strong contention for a win, she’s nominated alongside her wonderful costar Michelle Wilson, which could lead to a split of “Sweat” support and pave the way for a different victor.

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