In 2008, after the Great Recession hit, one of the last places you’d want to be – if you cared about job security, that is – was an auto factory in Detroit. But that’s exactly where the characters of Dominique Morisseau’s 2016 play Skeleton Crew find themselves, waiting for the proverbial axe to fall.
Skeleton Crew is set in the last auto stamping plant left in Detroit. There works Faye, a union rep on the cusp of making 30 years at the plant and receiving a pretty good retirement package; Shanita, a single mom-to-be who plans to work as much as possible before the baby comes; and Dez, a young man only a few months of paychecks away from fulfilling his dream of opening his own garage. Unfortunately, rumors swirl that the plant will soon be closed, rumors that Reggie, a high school dropout turned middle management, confirms to Faye. Reggie, who’s more son than boss to Faye, swears her to secrecy, saying he needs more time to work out the best severance packages for everyone. But as Dez grows increasingly suspicious and Shanita turns down another job, dedicated to sticking it out at the plant “until the wheels fall off,” Faye struggles with her loyalty to Reggie and her loyalty to her fellow line workers.
Skeleton Crew is the final installment in Morisseau’s three-play cycle, the “Detroit Project.” Along the way, Morisseau has cited multiple inspirations – a student in a college class yelling out “degenerate” when asked for a word to describe her hometown of Detroit, a woman reduced to living in her car in the Motor City, Mitt Romney’s cavalier and callous “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” call in 2008 – all of which make Skeleton Crew an exercise is empathy. Morisseau’s call for compassion, directed with a sharp, perceptive eye for the Alley Theatre by Taibi Magar, puts very human faces on a news story too often relegated to racialized and politicized talking points and headlines. Her characters are deeply layered, and expertly brought to life by an impressive group of actors at the Alley, starting with a powerhouse performance from Lizan Mitchell.
Mitchell’s Faye is no-nonsense, a tough old broad who’s proud to a fault. Faye’s identity is wrapped up in her ability to survive, and as that identity is threatened, both from the outside and within, Mitchell gets to show off her formidable acting chops, effortlessly imbuing Faye with a vulnerability that matches her strength, a biting attitude and a good dose of comedic timing.
As Reggie, David Rainey walks a tightrope masterfully, straining under the weight of being the one who’s made it out, the one who’s made something of himself, but who knows his grasp on upward mobility is only as strong as the (presumably) white boss above him allows it to be. Along the way, he expertly expresses genuine concern and affection for Faye, abject fear at the idea of losing his job, and barely contained rage at the disrespect shown by Dez, played by Brandon J. Morgan.
Morgan is a defiant, cynical presence on stage as Dez, a man prone to lashing out at the presumptions made about him because of where he comes from and his backwards hat. His frustration is palpable, his pride wounded. Morgan captures Dez’s resignation beautifully and plays the other side of Dez – the one that playfully spars with Faye and goofily flirts with Shanita – just as skillfully.
Candice D’Meza’s Shanita is a bright spot in the factory. She’s hopeful and optimistic with just a touch of barely repressed worry lapping at the edges of her psyche. D’Meza’s comedic delivery is also displayed, particularly in the scene that opens the second act.
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Magar makes full use of the play’s one set, the auto factory’s worn and weathered break room, impressively realized by Scenic Designer Kevin Rigdon. From the meager kitchenette to the mismatched chairs – metal folding chairs, dated trapezoidal-backed chairs, and those ventilated plastic chairs you find in underfunded public schools – it’s clear Rigdon has a keen eye for detail. It extends to the implied high ceiling and open space, the grimy windows, damaged ceiling panels and beat up door. Samantha C. Jones’s costumes boast an equal attention to detail, from the thoughtful designs for each character to the requisite bright yellow safety vests and the dirty knit work sleeves each wears to work.
Jason Lynch’s lighting design is harsh and unforgiving, matching perfectly the harsh, unforgiving industrial setting. Lynch and Sound Designer Mikaal Sulaiman also combine forces for the show’s effecting transitions, which evoke the action of the stamping plant with pulsing music (and a couple of soul classics) coupled with bold color choices.
As ridiculously strong as the individual elements are, the Alley’s production of Skeleton Crew begins and ends with the cast, a tight, well-oiled ensemble. They truly are a family on stage, with all the affection and dysfunction that comes along with it.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $45 to $50.