Skeleton Crew – Review by Brooks Appelbaum

Westport Country Playhouse, with LA Williams directing, is giving Dominque Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” a strong production through June 22. I wish the play itself—the last in Morisseau’s trilogy, “The Detroit Project”—were equally strong and less . . . well . . . skeletal.

“Skeleton Crew” tells the story of three workers and their supervisor at one of Detroit’s last operating automobile plants, most of the rest having been shut down in 2008, when the play is set, a year before Chrysler and General Motors declared bankruptcy. The title refers to layoffs that leave the least possible number of workers to do a job safely and well. Thus, the tension amongst this skeleton crew of autoworkers is high from the start.

Faye, the eldest of the group (a remarkable Perri Gaffney), is a union representative and is also very close to her boss, Reggie (Sean Nelson), whose whole life, from childhood, has been bound up with hers; among other connections, she got him his position. When he tells her, in confidence, that the plant is likely to close, she must choose between her loyalty to him and her wish to ensure that her co-workers have futures lined up when their present jobs are gone.

Those co-workers are Dez, played by a terrific Leland Fowler, and the very pregnant and very single young Shanita, played by Toni Martin. Dez alternates between charming and sweet—he’s clearly sweet on Shanita—and furious at supervisor Reggie for, as he sees it, distrusting and devaluing him. Fowler gives us a loose cannon of a young man, who might do anything to get closer to his dreams.

As Shanita, Martin turns in a slow-burn performance: at first, Shanita seems like the caricature of a good girl, but as the plot moves forward, she shows increasing complexity, and her passion about her work helps us care about her decisions and her fate. Morisseau has written some unfortunately melodramatic speeches for this character, but Martin comes as close as anyone could to making them believable.

The play belongs, however, to Perri Gaffney’s Faye, who owns the stage from the moment the lights come up. Tall, rangy, and androgynous (we learn about the myriad reasons for Faye’s self-presentation late in the play), Gaffney prowls around the set like a lioness on her turf, off-handed but alert. She somehow portrays a woman who is simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, and the actor’s charisma never pulls the audience out of believing in Faye every moment she is onstage.

The action takes place in the plant’s break-room, and Caite Havner has designed an appropriately precise set that grounds us in kitchen-sink realism. This makes Xavier Pierce’s futuristic lighting all the more intrusive, and one wonders what the director had in mind. Instead of focusing only on that room, with simple blackouts allowing the characters to leave the stage unobtrusively, our attention is drawn to sleek walls of color that surround the space, changing hue between each scene and illuminating, rather than covering, each exit.

Not only does this interfere with the play’s illusion of reality, but it also represents an opportunity lost. We are, after all, in a factory. If the lighting behind the doors leading in and out of the break room more clearly brought to mind the colors produced by the furnaces and the machinery on the plant floor, we could stay within the world that the set, the costumes (Asa Benally), and the sound—designer Chris Lane makes sure we hear the factory noise whenever a door opens—have established.

Because Morisseau’s plot is, ultimately, both thin and overly long, one can understand director LA Williams’ wish to create more drama with his designers. However, the actors come close to bringing to the stage all the drama and heart that this piece affords. Usually, we say in the theater that a director should trust the script. In this case, the wisest choice would have been to trust the actors.