by Macey Levin
Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew completes her Detroit Trilogy, a series of plays depicting the life of African-Americans in that troubled city. The first, Detroit ‘67, takes place during the riots of that year, followed by Paradise Blue set in 1949 when urban renewal was destroying local neighborhoods. Skeleton Crew focuses on workers at a stamping factory during the great recession of the twenty-first century.
Faye, a long-time employee and the union rep, is planning on working one more year so that she can retire with full benefits. Her two young co-workers, Dez and Shanita, in their twenties, are working to better their lives. Dez is saving his money to buy a service station; the unwed Shanita is pregnant and loves her job. Their supervisor Reggie is the son of Faye’s best friend, now deceased, and is working to give his wife and children a better life.
Reggie, confiding in Faye, informs her that the factory will close within a year; he asks her not to mention it while he devises a plan to help the company’s employees. However, as the worker pool starts to shrink and rumors of an impending shutdown are become more frequent, Dez and Shanita try to retain control of their lives. Because Faye and Reggie are older with greater responsibilities and pressures, their troubles are more wide-reaching.
Morisseau’s play dramatizes the crises Detroit’s inner city population faced in previous decades and continues to confront. These are people who have hope simply because they have a job. As each of them is victimized by an economy that is outgrowing them, their present and future problems are exacerbated.
These are uneducated people and Morisseau has peppered their conversations with their ungrammatical and slangy jargon. There is a lot of talk in this script… banter, anger, frustration, fear, the whole spectrum of credible dialogue, but the production moves smoothly as we are caught up in their lives.
Led by Ami Bramson as Faye, the acting smacks of reality. From the very beginning the cast fashions that special character often found in a workplace despite the hardships of the job. All of them bring the ring of truth to their fears and aspirations that are tempered by the knowledge of their place in the hard and impersonal American job landscape. Bramson projects Faye’s leadership skills despite her vulnerabilities and secrets.
Reggie, as played by Daniel Morgan Shelley is torn between his management responsibilities and his concern for his subordinates, especially Faye. The actor carefully modulates his friendships with the burden of being a boss. Christian Henley’s Dez is the crudest but most insightful of the bunch. He has the ability to look past the smoke screen management has erected and speak the truth to the others. He is also the most mercurial bouncing from casual conversation to angry outbursts. Shanita (Margaret Odette) is the most light-hearted and charming of the team but still aware of the place she holds in a shaky world.
Director Awoye Timpo has directed the play with an awareness of the repetition and travail of working in a factory while struggling with the angst of eking out a living and seeking a better future. Despite the seemingly inconsequential but necessary bantering among the workers, she has built the tension of the play at a rapid pace. Within the colloquial language that runs through the dialogue, there are a number of lyrical passages that inform us of the characters’ internal thoughts and feelings. However, there are moments, especially in quietly intense scenes when the actors’ projection and articulation could be sharper.
Timpo moves her cast inside David Towlun’s detailed claustrophobic break room set as if they really lived there day by day. Tom Shread’s transitional music between scenes is harsh and jarring, befitting the mood of the play, and Elizabeth Pangburn’s costumes suggest the status of the skeleton crew in and out of the factory.
This is not an easy play, but it is a comment on the world in which we live whether it be in Detroit, Boston, New York or Chester, Massachusetts.
Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau, Directed by Awoye Timpo, Cast: Ami Bramson (Faye) Christian Henley (Dez) Margaret Odette (Shanita) Daniel Morgan Shelley (Reggie) Scene design: David Towlun, Costume design: Elizabeth Pangburn, Lighting design: Lara Dubin, Sound design: Tom Shread, Stage Manager: Laura Kathryne Gomez, Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, One intermission, Chester Theatre Company, Town Hall Theatre, Chester, MA, From 7/13/17; closing 7/23/17, Reviewed by Macey Levin at July 14 performance