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Set in the winter of 2008 in a Detroit auto-pressing factory break room, Dominique Morisseau’s undaunted and poetically shimmering play Skeleton Crew is an impassioned dispatch from an eroding working class. Timely and political without being preachy, this final part of the playwright’s “Detroit Project” trilogy, which premiered at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company in 2016, is smart, elegantly executed and, best of all, brimming with emotion.
When we first meet Faye (Caroline Stefanie Clay), she is sitting at a table in scenic designer Rachel Myers’ authentically detailed break room, the play’s only set. On the table, a sign reads, “No Smoking Faye.” In her hand is a cigarette. A union leader of UAW 167, she’s a rebel at heart, but like organized labor everywhere these days, a lot of the bite has been taken out of her.
That might be why, when plant foreman Reggie (DB Woodside) tells her that management has decided to close up shop, she agrees not to tell the rank and file yet, though it also might be because Reggie is the son of her deceased lover. Despite being a high school dropout, he’s one of them: “Look at me, I’m wearing a tie to work!”
Dez (Amari Cheatom), an energetic young man with a secret, has plans of opening his own shop one day. And Shanita (Kelly McCreary), a very pregnant single mom, is a second-generation factory worker who embraces the music of the machines around her because it symbolizes job security. “I love the way the [factory] line needs me. You step away, whole operation shuts down,” she says of her work, which is why she passes on a job offer she received from a Xerox shop.
A series of robberies seems to point to Dez, who is hiding a gun in his locker. But Morisseau, in the scant plotting she provides, is too canny to take audiences where they think they’re going. No, the gun isn’t fired by the third act, as per Chekhov’s dictum, and whether Dez is guilty remains a mystery that lingers after the final curtain.
More important than plot to Morisseau are her characters, people of color slaving away in jobs that used to provide enough to support middle-class single-income families. In the world of Skeleton Crew, Faye, a breast-cancer survivor, has been living in her car for six weeks, sleeping in the break room when the winter nights are too cold. She’s a survivor, boasting, “Twenty-nine years and all my limbs intact.”
Seen in last year’s revival of The Little Foxes on Broadway, Clay makes Faye the heart of Skeleton Crew. She seems at home in costume designer Emilio Sosa’s cargo pants and baggy winter coat, knit cap over baldpate, the look of a resilient scrapper, a flaunter of conventions. She pleads on behalf of everyone but herself, even with her own future in doubt.
Opposite Clay’s irresistible force, Woodside’s Reggie is an immovable object, a good man who could stand on principle and jeopardize himself and his family or carry out orders and punish undeserving people whom he regards as friends and family. Known mainly for his TV work on shows like Fox’s Lucifer, Parenthood, Suits and 24, Woodside palpably embodies a portrait of bondage and impotence, a man paralyzed with inaction as he struggles to do what’s right.
Cheatom’s Dez is a smart young man trying to build a future from meager resources. Willing to bend the rules when they’re so firmly set against him, it’s easy to imagine him robbing the factory. The actor burns with the frustration of those who play by the rules only to find themselves blocked at every turn.
“We get squeezed into smaller lives while they make plans for better highways,” he says of the powers that be, putting into words a frustration that resonates far beyond the factory floor. Morisseau’s dialogue is full of such moments that seem effortlessly to transcend their immediate context to comment on greater truths.
Shanita recalls a dream in which she’s giving birth and the delivery suddenly pauses. When she calls it “all this potential still waiting to be delivered,” she could easily be talking about herself, an exemplary worker, a person of virtue who holds herself to a high standard who now, with the factory’s imminent closure, will be terminated like so many able workers, her potential put on hold. Best known for playing Dr. Maggie Pierce on Grey’s Anatomy, McCreary gracefully treads the delicate line between a bright, young woman still full of hope and the hardened, embittered single mother she might become after losing her job.
Morisseau’s characters sound like real-life people with real-life problems. They are strivers confronted with the false promise of the American dream, like characters in the social-realist plays of The Group Theatre under Elia Kazan, with more obvious echoes of Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson. Director Patricia McGregor teases pensive arias out of Morisseau’s musical monologues, conducting her acting quartet in a rhythm riddled with mounting dissonance.
With Tom Hanks starring in Henry IV and Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Los Angeles has a number of must-see productions this season. Skeleton Crew, which is emotionally bracing as well as relevant in its social commentary, may not offer marquee names, but it belongs at the top of the list. Morisseau’s work also can be seen Aug. 21-Sept. 30 at the Ahmanson, as the book writer of the Temptations bio-musical Ain’t Too Proud, en route to Broadway.
Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Cast: Amari Cheatom, Caroline Stefanie Clay, Kelly McCreary, DB Woodside
Director: Patricia McGregor
Playwright: Dominique Morisseau
Set designer: Rachel Myers
Costume designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting designer: Pablo Santiago
Sound designer: Everett Elton Bradman
Presented by Geffen Playhouse
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