More penetrating character study than dramaturgical accomplishment, Dominique Morisseau’s loosely knit “Skeleton Crew” is a drama of threat and loss at Westport Country Playhouse. Like an unfinished house, bricks are all over the place but the structure is missing. Provocative in many ways, with idiosyncratic dialogue and promising characters, the evening feels unfinished.
The third of the playwright’s trilogy about the fall of Detroit, her hometown (the others are “Detroit ‘67” and “Paradise Blue”), “Skeleton Crew” takes place in the gritty break room of a stamping plant, “somewhere around the year 2008”). Its four characters are Faye (Perri Gaffney), the tough-as-nails union rep, Shanita (Toni Martin), pregnant and ambitious, Dez (Leland Fowler), worried about his safety and future and Reggie (Sean Nelson), the sympathetic foreman caught between management and workers.
Underlying their easy banter is the fear that the somewhat obsolete plant may close, putting them all out of jobs. Outside forces of modernization are doing their dirty work at the expense of people even the union cannot help.
If they lose their jobs, they’ve lost their “family,” and their souls. The impending collapse of the factory symbolizes the demise of Detroit itself. The parallels to August Wilson’s plays about Pittsburgh’s Hill District are obvious, though lacking in Wilson’s poetry, character illumination or build.
Morisseau wants to meld her characters into a sustainable unit, but only in a devastating, secret-revealing scene between Faye and Reggie are we drawn into the center of the play’s humanity. Their relationship extends beyond the factory walls and the evening’s rather hokey narrative with its numerous red herrings. There is much at stake here – the conflict between labor and management, loyalty, homelessness, globalization and, of course, the decline of manufacturing cities like Detroit – but “Skeleton Crew” is, like its title, more bone than meat, lacking tension and empathy.
Although La Williams’ direction doesn’t connect the play’s various strands (something about a robbery goes nowhere), the acting is superior, chiefly Perri Gaffney’s Faye, as a study in strength and survival mixed with vulnerability. Portraying a woman on the brink of being completely worn out, Gaffney imbues her with elasticity: no matter how enervated, she snaps back.
As Reggie, Sean Nelson is touchingly conflicted as his better angels spar with his divided loyalties. Leland Fowler invests Dez with a dangerous edge that turns out to be all show and no bite while, as Shanita, Toni Martin is both humorous and lovable.
What Morisseau gets blazingly right is the camaraderie of workers who, for protection and support, coalesce in corporations and factories that would treat them not as individuals but cogs in the machinery. In a divided nation, sharing is caring.