Theater Review: CTC’s “Skeleton Crew” — The Working Class Blues

Dominique Morisseau’s monologues and dialogues draw you into the details of American working class life.

Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Awoye Timpo. Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA, through July 23.

Margaret Odette (left) and Christian Henley (right). Photo: Elizabeth Solaka

Margaret Odette (left) and Christian Henley (right) in the Chester Theatre Company production of “Skeleton Crew.” Photo: Elizabeth Solaka.

By Helen Epstein

You don’t have to have seen the devastation of Detroit or the miles of shuttered industrial plants in the Rust Belt to be impressed by Dominique Morisseau’s absorbing and lyrical Skeleton Crew. This is a four-character contemporary drama that is both timeless and of the moment, whose characters are driven by universal desires but whose situation is as specific as the latest headline from the auto industry.

Morisseau (whose most recent play, Pipeline, is currently running at New York’s Lincoln Center) is a poet as well as an actor and playwright. She grew up in Detroit, graduated from the University of Michigan, and clearly has both Arthur Miller and August Wilson in her playwriting bones. Skeleton Crew is the third and final play in her Detroit trilogy, and it’s written in a kind of high black vernacular with an emphasis on the hard ethical choices individuals are obliged to make in pursuit of the American Dream as well as the gritty details of a particular time and place.

Skeleton Crew is set entirely in the ”break room” of a stamping plant, the noisy, clanging, metal-pressing factory that produces doors and other large metal parts for vehicles. The break room is furnished like a teachers’ lounge — shabby couch, lunch table, water cooler, fridge, and a bulletin board on which notices are pinned and removed. But it also contains a wall of lockers in which each assembly-line worker stores his or her hard-hat and work boots. In David Towlen’s persuasive set for the Chester Theatre Company staging, every prop has its use, including the harsh neon ceiling fixtures.

Four intriguing and sympathetic African-American characters inhabit this small space: UAW members Faye, Shanita, and Dez, and their supervisor Reggie. You get to know and care about all four as their relationships develop in surprising ways.

Faye (veteran TV and Off Broadway actress Ami Brabson) is the Union Rep, with 29 years at the plant. Feisty cancer survivor, single Mom, and an out lesbian, she is looking forward to finally cashing in on her pension within the year.

Shanita (Margaret Odette, a recent NYU MFA who can play adorable without being cloying) is a second-generation auto worker, following in her father’s footsteps, gifted with her hands, prim, pretty, earnest, and about six months pregnant. She is planning on a life-long career in the auto industry.

Dez (Christian Henley, an MFA from the USC School of Dramatic Arts) has no such ambition. He’s the sly, seductive rebel of the group; he has no illusions about the aims of corporate America and wants to cash out as soon as he can and run his own garage.

Reggie (Julliard-trained Daniel Morgan Shelley) has the least sympathetic role as the supervisor trying to walk an increasingly thin line between the demands of (white, we assume) management and his loyalty to Faye, his late mother’s best friend and lover.

Director Awoye Timpo has chosen an unusually well-matched group of talented actors and has managed, with a few weeks, to create a cohesive ensemble. Morisseau’s monologues and dialogues draw you into the details of American working class life in the twenty-first century, exploring how difficult it is to attain middle-class status — and how easy it is to lose. The play was written in response to the 2008 recession, but it is powerfully relevant to the 2016 Presidential election, with its themes of globalization, plant closures, and working class anger at being abandoned by government and corporations, compounded by the anxieties of left automation and outsourcing. Still, Skeleton Crew is not, at heart, a play about the tragedy of neo-liberal economics. Its dramatic focus is on the personal rather then the political.

Helen Epstein reviews books and theater for artsfuse. She is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life and nine other books. Her work can be found at Plunkett Lake Press.

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