A skeleton crew is the minimum number of people needed to maintain something in operation—to keep something alive. The title of Dominique Morisseau’s appealing, thought-provoking drama at Studio Theatre could refer to the quartet of characters who inhabit it, a sample of the dwindling remnants of a once-mighty population of auto workers in an industry in flux.
Or it could reference the human leftovers of the city of Detroit—the play’s setting and the playwright’s muse—survivors of an especially ruinous municipal collapse.
Set in 2008, as the Motor City—already a symbol of economic and social devastation—felt the squeeze from the first shockwaves of the Great Recession, Skeleton Crew is chiefly concerned with the precariousness of surviving. Or as the lead character Faye (Caroline Stefanie Clay) puts it: “One minute you passin’ the woman on the freeway holdin’ up the ‘will work for food’ sign. Next minute, you sleepin’ in your car.”
Faye is a veteran assembly line worker and union rep trying to eke through one last year on payroll before collecting a full retirement package. She exists clenched between the corrosive agony of loss—her family, her home—and an indomitable will to beat the house. It’s worked so far. She’s beaten cancer and miles of hard times and she’s betting that she can ride out this latest trial—hanging on to her job at the city’s last auto stamping plant. And then she’s dealt the news that it’s closing.
closes October 8, 2017
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Faye conceals her vulnerability behind a ballsy toughness and devil-may-care bluster, treading where and how she pleases around the shop and among her co-workers. Her plight is shared with much younger co-workers Dez (Jason Bowen), an irrepressible man with a plan, and Shanita (Shannon Dorsey), an affable marshmallow of a girl with a child on the way and dreamy pride in her work. Reggie (Tyee Tilghman), their foreman, is a decent man in the middle of a lousy situation, caught up between labor and management, his future and his past, his family and his “work family.”
The action is set in motion as Reggie confides in Faye that the factory is scheduled for closure. At the same time a rash of thefts push management to crack down on infractions and nerves are set on edge. But the journey and the conclusions of this keenly felt, kind-hearted, and sensitively acted drama are blessedly atypical of much contemporary drama, especially around lightning rod issues. Skeleton Crew is blissfully free of cheap shot sensationalism and stereotypes and instead holds up affectionate portrayals of good people weighing stressful decisions, drawn in a natural interplay with touches of street poet lyricism and a tempered optimism against an otherwise bleak backdrop.
Director Patricia McGregor helms a grounded, empathetic production, from the attentively authentic breakroom set designed by Tim Brown to the honestly-rendered performances. The in-sync ensemble gives life to the personal crisis each character is passing through and expresses that uncertainty with a natural ease. Puzzlingly, some plot-specific storylines in the play are left unclear, but that’s excusable, as the frank time spent with these characters in their breakroom sanctuary as they work out their next moves provides the most profit.
Clay demands attention with a full-bodied portrayal of Faye, the fiercely proud matriarch who allows no doubt about her strength but also acquiesces to glimpses of the pain she endures. Bowen and Dorsey are splendid as the younger generation and Tilghman pulls off the difficult balancing act of portraying Reggie. Stiff and straight in a starched collar, tie and pullover sweater, he embodies the conflicted man ascending from one socioeconomic class into another and feeling the guilt and confusion around identity that attends that move. His skillfully repressed slow burn and climactic breakdown showcases the crippling concessions to the manhood he feels he’s traded away in support of his growing family.
Skeleton Crew is the final play in Morisseau’s three-play cycle The Detroit Project, a trilogy of studies focused on race and transformation in her hometown. Thankfully, the beleaguered city has been on something of a comeback in recent years, but the stories told in Skeleton Crew are not really rooted in any one time and place—instead they’re sprung from the doubts, hopes and fears of all who navigate the frighteningly thin line between have and have not.
Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Patricia McGregor. Featuring Caroline Stefanie Clay, Jason Bowen, Shannon Dorsey and Tyee Tilghman. Set design by Tim Brown. Costume design by Marci Rodgers. Lighting design by Nancy Schertler. Sound design by Everett Elton Bradman. Dramaturgy by Lauren Halvorsen. Stage managed by John Keith Hall. Produced by Studio Theatre. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.