The playwright of the moment, Dominique Morisseau, has seen no less than four of her plays produced by Connecticut theatres over the past several months. She is also currently represented on Broadway as the Tony nominated book writer for the musical hit, “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations”. Ms. Morisseau’s latest, “Skeleton Crew”, is now on the boards at the Westport Playhouse.
“Skeleton Crew” completes Morisseau’s trilogy of plays entitled “The Detroit Project” all set in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan. The previous plays in the trilogy, “Paradise Blue” and “Detroit ‘67”, were seen earlier this season at the Long Wharf Theatre and Hartford Stage respectively. Prone to overwriting and with a tendency towards melodrama, the playwright’s “Skeleton Crew” is easily the best of these three heartfelt if uneven dramas.
Set in the break room of an automobile factory, “Skeleton Crew” explores the lives of blue collar workers led by union head Faye (Perri Gaffney) currently eying a retirement package if she can hang on another year. Her coworkers include the very pregnant Shanita (Toni Martin, wonderful) and argumentative Dez (Leland Fowler), who may or may not be stealing from the company. When Faye is told by supervisor Reggie (Sean Nelson) that there is a possibility of the plant closing, she’s torn between protecting her fellow workers or honoring Reggie’s request for secrecy. Faye was a close friend to Reggie’s mother and feels an allegiance that conflicts with her role as union rep.
Morisseau has an excellent ear for dialogue and knows these characters all too well. She’s been compared to August Wilson and his 10-play cycle about life in Pittsburgh that includes “Fences” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. Both playwrights deal passionately with timely stories about the African-American experience, but whereas Morisseau is fairly straight-forward in her depictions, Wilson’s writing is far more poetic. He brings a significant amount of humanity and purpose to his characters deftly avoiding making them mere mouthpieces for a cause. There is some speechifying in “Skeleton Crew” that doesn’t always seem to spring organically from the characters and the play’s first act could easily be trimmed by 15 minutes. Once the central conflict is revealed, Morisseau’s characters continue to repeat the problem until redundancy sets in, a problem that is somewhat rectified in a more efficient second act.
Smoothly directed by La Williams, the small cast is fairly accomplished. Tough and uncompromising, Gaffney’s portrayal of a prideful woman who just needs to get through the day is admirable and Fowler neatly balances his frustration with his job and burgeoning interest in Shanita. Martin’s sweet and impassioned performance is perhaps the most specific and memorable in the play while Nelson is a tad flat in a rather underwritten role.
Caite Hevner’s detailed break room setting is dramatically framed by blood red walls. It works beautifully but the staff bulletin board, which plays an important part here, is buried stage right where only half of it is visible. Costumes by Asa Benally are fine and the play is expressively lit by Xavier Pierce. “Skeleton Crew” is a solid play with a promise of better things to come from its young playwright.
“Skeleton Crew” continues at the Westport Playhouse through June 23. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.