Review by Kathleen Campion
It is 2008 and the Great Recession is rolling over Detroit. The government bailout, which actually did save the US auto industry when it arrived much later in the C-suites, comes too late to bail out the paycheck-to-paycheck lifers struggling on the factory floor.
All of the action takes place in the grim break room of an automotive-parts maker. From the start, rumors the plant is closing hang in the air and frame the storyline. Beside the time-clock and the cards that record the comings and goings of the workers, someone has tacked up a sign saying: NO SMOKING
Faye (Lynda Gravatt) enters and lights up. She is tough as old boots. She’s the union rep and she’s seen it all in the 29 years she’s put in. Young Dez (Jason Dirden) is another matter; quick to argue, sweet to the women, but contentious with the boss. Dez has plans to make his own future outside the shop. Shanita (Nikiya Mathis), a sweetly disarming young woman, focused on her evident pregnancy, loves the job and wants to stay.
This trio reports to Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin) their foreman. He’s moved up from their ranks. He wears a white collar and a tie. He is the most conflicted of the quartet of players.
Playwright Dominique Morisseau has a gift for telling her very big stories in her small details. Shania hears music in the factory sounds long before she tells us how she feels about being part of something bigger than herself, about being needed on the line, and about how her daddy would be proud.
Dez is confidently flirtatious with Shania, playful and assertive with Faye and but righteous and furious with the only other man. We wait a long time to see his fear.
Faye is in charge of her life and, in some sense, their lives, until you notice she is wearing the same clothes each day and is always in the break room before everyone else—and still there after everyone leaves.
Morisseau manages to make the overworked metaphor of the work family as real family—work. Faye, the self sacrificing matriarch, balances the well being of her Cain and Abel “sons” and their sibling rivalry. She is protective of the daughter ‘pregnant’ with hope. A lesser writer might have slipped to cliche, but Morisseau gives each of her people an authenticity that precludes any stereotyping.
To be sure, Morisseau sings the song of Detroit—this is the third in her hometown trilogy—but, more, she is writing an original American story. You might trick out the set with WPA murals, tributes to the American worker at the dirty finger nail level.
Michael Carnahan’s intricate set—just one room, just one door—makes much of the magic. The industrial rigging framing the stage suggest size and power. The “throw” out the door to the factory floor offers a remarkable sense of depth. He engages us in the detail of the break room— the beat-up lockers, the cast-off furniture, and the borrowed space heater.
Sound is another player here. The gritty hip-hop lyrics and pounding baseline give way to the shop floor sounds startling the industrial ‘dust’ enveloping them.
The decision to use a dancer (the program lists Adesola Osakalumi as both the choreographer and performer) to make transitions between scenes is, at first, engaging. Strobe lighting accentuates the dancer’s moves underscoring the jagged, unsettling world we are seeing. Something happens to this good idea as it is revisited too often and for too long.
Skeleton Crew By Dominique Morisseau; directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson;
WITH: Lynda Gravatt (Faye), Jason Dirden (Dez), Nikiya Mathis (Shanita), Wendell B. Franklin (Reggie) and Adesola Osakalumi (Performer).
Sets by Michael Carnahan; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Rui Rita; music and sound by Robert Kaplowitz; original songs by Jimmy Keys; choreography by Adesola Osakalumi; projections by Nicholas Hussong; production stage manager, Laura Wilson; production manager, Ian Paul Guzzone; associate artistic director, Annie MacRae; general manager, Pamela Adams. Presented by Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, artistic director; Jeffory Lawson, managing director. Through Feb. 14 at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, Chelsea; 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org. Running time: 2hours with one intermission.