by: Michael Bracken
It’s 2008 and corrosion continues to rule the Rust Belt. Welcome to the world of Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, at Atlantic Stage 2. Set in Detroit, Morisseau’s drama, uneven but simmering with working-class intensity, charts the death of an auto stamping plant in the Motor City. And as the factory devolves, so, to varying extents, do the lives and careers of the four featured characters who work there.
Skeleton Crew has a fifth character as well, credited as “Performer” and played by Adesola Osakalumi. He starts the play with robotic dancing to hip hop and strobe lights, perfectly evoking the automaton-like nature of an assembly line, the dehumanizing environment in which three of the four workers spend their days. Unfortunately, variations on this initial choreography precede every scene to follow (and the scenes are short), replacing insightful expression with obligatory repetition. Even if intended as commentary on the drudgery of the assembly line, they take on a drudgery of their own.
Scenic designer Michael Carnahan has created a very convincing break room where the entire play is set. Couch, chairs, refrigerator table: none are falling apart but all are worse for wear. The placement of the time clock in the room is questionable. Workers come in, clock in, and immediately take a short break before they’ve even begun their shift. No wonder the industry’s in trouble.
Husky-voiced Faye (Lynda Gravatt) dominates the space with grungy grandeur. Well over fifty, she’s cantankerous, blustery, and constantly ignoring the no-smoking rule, but she’s also smart with a big, if rough-edged, heart. Shop steward for her unit, she’s been on the line for twenty-nine years, looking to hit thirty (and therefore goose her retirement package) before she calls it a day.
Dez (Jason Dirden) is a rebel without a cause, always questioning authority and itching to get out of his dead end job and start his own garage. He’s also itching to make some time with Shanita (Nikiya Mathis), a model employee who’s also very pretty and pregnant. She rebuffs his advances.
Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin) has the thankless job of supervisor. He’s also the son of deceased Cathryn, the love of Faye’s life. It was through Faye that Reggie came to work at the plant.
Shops like this one are closing right and left, as automobile makers take the function in-house or look to cheaper foreign labor. Sure enough, this shop becomes slated to close, which we learn as Reggie tells Faye in confidence, asking her to tell no one else despite her union duties. He needs her guidance, he tells her, to make sure he does what’s best for everyone.
It’s a dubious premise but we might go along for the ride. Except for one thing. We never see Reggie consulting with Faye, not even tangentially. There’s never any evidence of or reference to any kind of advice or ideas flowing between them. The premise goes from dubious to fabricated, but it allows for needed dramatic tension as both Faye and Reggie find themselves in awkward, albeit manufactured, positions.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s direction is smooth and unforced. He gives the many breakroom comings and goings an organic ease. As for the playwright, she creates a mood of tension that simmers throughout.
The members of the ensemble are all strong, playing off and complementing each other with street-tinged grace. Each character is a type, but each actor, with help from Morisseau, enlarges upon and personalizes the type, creating a unique and fully realized individual. Skeleton Crew comes up short on details, but its hard-bitten heart ensures there’s genuine skin on its bones.
Through February 14th at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 W. 16th Street). www.atlantictheater.org
Photos: Ahron Foster