‘Skeleton Crew’ gets to heart of Detroit auto workers

By the second act of Dominique Morisseau’s 2016 Obie Award-winning “Skeleton Crew,” the four workers in this Detroit auto plant have become beautifully, heartbreakingly real.

That’s thanks to Morisseau’s well-constructed script, with it taut, naturalistic dialogue and multi-faceted characters, and the altogether flawless acting under Jade King Carroll’s perfectly calibrated direction.

The TheatreWorks Silicon Valley/Marin Theatre Company co-production is the third drama of the New York playwright’s Detroit trilogy; a Detroit native, she was inspired by August Wilson’s Pittsburgh series (set in his own hometown) and, if this play is an indicator, is creating her own impressive legacy.

“Skeleton Crew” takes place within a short time frame in 2008 in the realistically shabby break room (fine set by Ed Haynes) of an auto plant on the brink of foreclosure, as this once-booming, now-dying city succumbs to economic despair and violence.

Morisseau digs deep, and with a clear-eyed compassion and insight, into the personal struggles of her black, working-class characters, and into the nuanced dynamics among them.

There’s Shanita (Tristan Cunningham), a single, pregnant woman with a tart tongue and a surprising, even illuminating pride in her assembly-line job; Dez (Christian Thompson), the restless and bitter young worker who flirts with her; Reggie (Lance Gardner), the supervisor who’s come up in the world but whose allegiances are sorely tested.

The much-respected central character Faye (Margo Hall, so richly expressive it’s hard to take your eyes off her) is a lesbian in remission from cancer who’s fallen on very hard times. A union rep, she’s been with the company for 29 years — just short of her hoped-for 30-year retirement package, if the factory doesn’t close before then — and is the glue that holds the crew together; half of the workers have already been laid off.

Tensions rise at just the right pace as the unseen bosses crack down on rules, as a mysterious rash of night-time break-ins generate mistrust and suspicion and as the inevitability of unemployment looms.

Comments Faye, “After you lose your house, your family, your job, you know what’s next? Your soul.” She’s down, but not out of the game.

Morisseau and this dream team conjure a world that effortlessly draws us in, no matter our race or social class. For the viewer, it’s the kind of theatrical experience that can change a person.

One question remains: How soon can we see the first two plays in Morisseau’s Detroit series?

REVIEW
Skeleton Crew
Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley/Marin Theatre Company
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. most Sundays, closes April 1
Tickets: $40 to $100
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org

Jean Schiffman

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