Although “Skeleton Crew,” by Dominique Morrisseau, takes place in Detroit around the economic recession of 2008, the fate of millions of employees at various auto manufacturing plants and other businesses that depend on auto industry throughout the US is still with us. And yet, few contemporary playwrights have called serious attention to the subject of economics and its serious impact on ordinary people in such dramatic fashion since Arthur Miller. Currently at Westport Country Playhouse (WCP) this play’s “ordinary people” happen to be folks of color however the subject matter, along with appropriate, colorful mannerisms, could be applied to any ethnic group.
Influenced by August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” Ms. Morrisseau wrote three plays about the African-American experience in Detroit, called the “Detroit Cycle.” “Skeleton Crew” completes this cycle. Most recently, the playwright’s musical, “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” was nominated for several Tony Awards. It won the Tony Award for “Best Choreography” by Serge Trujillo.
The microcosm of Detroit takes place in the break room of one of its automobile factories. There are rumors in the air that the plant may have to close. During their arrivals and break periods, the play is focused on four employees lives and uncertain futures. “Faye” (Perri Gaffney) is the chain-smoking senior member of the group and the longest employed. She appears to be strong and high-spirited in her military fatigue pants but internally her old body is breaking down from all the kicks she’s had in life. Faye’s hope is to simply hang on. “Dez” (Leland Fowler), is the strutting, energetic, young man. He enjoys sporting his bright, red, new sneakers while carrying dreams of his own auto parts business in his backpack. “Shanita” (Toni Martin) the very pregnant single gal, is only interested in seeking recognition for doing the best job on the assembly line, and simply wants the best of everything for her child’s future. “Reggie” (Sean Nelson) is the insecure, company manager who is forever doing a balancing act with the employees under his charge. He recently bought a house for his young family and is desperate to keep it. Herein are the very human interactions and moral dilemmas within this play.
Each actor captures scenes in the spotlight. While the light seems to center on Gaffney’s (Faye) stubborn defiance the most, Fowler’s (Dez) assertiveness and underlying sweetness, Martins’ (Shanita) coy girlishness and vivid dreams of false labor, and Nelson’s (Reggie) frustrations are equally moving. Morisseau’s dialog is up-to-date, clever, very sharp and often amusing. She has a good ear for ethnic accents and common expressions, and a knack for subtly including cultural mannerisms without insult. Under the direction of La Williams, the four workers are so realistically portrayed that the audience is immediately drawn into each individual’s plight.
Mark Lamos, Artistic Director of WCP, rightly states in his program notes: “ I want to see things onstage I’ve never seen before … A Detroit auto factory is one of them.” Of course this play is about more than just an auto factory. As Lamos more importantly points out, its about “human responsibility and ethics.” We need more plays that hit home like this one.
Plays to June 22, 2019
Tickets: 203 227 4177
This review appears in “On CT and NY Theatre” June/2019