Sunday, February 04, 2018

Panic in Detroit: Dominique Morisseau's 'Skeleton Crew' Realistically Explores Harsh Economic Realities at Northlight -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Skeleton Crew
a new play by Dominique Morisseau
directed by Ron OJ Parson
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru March 3

I've never worked in an auto plant, or any factory for that matter.

But I have--including very acutely as a result of the 2008 (and subsequent) recession central to Skeleton Crew--been laid off, downsized, unemployed, underemployed, hard-pressed to find work and perpetually in fear of losing jobs I do get, much more as a consequence of company performance than my own. 

So the universality of Dominique Morisseau's new play about a stamping plant in Detroit facing shutdown, and the human effect reflected though four employees, certainly isn't lost on me.

The characters--Faye, a 29-year employee (played by Jacqueline Williams, whose work I've consistently enjoyed), the considerably younger Dez (Bernard Gilbert), visibly pregnant Shanita (AnJi White) and foreman Reggie (Kelvin Roston Jr.), whose mom was Faye's late lover--are all well-written and quite realistically embodied.

Photo credit on all: Charles Osgood Photography
Their interactions and concerns ring resonant, far beyond acuity to a specific time & place, even though Skeleton Crew is the third work in Morisseau's "Detroit Trilogy." (I saw Detroit '67, which centers around riots in the title year, in 2013 at Northlight; I did not see the 2017 TimeLine production of the second play, Paradise Blue. All three were directed by Ron OJ Parson.)

Without giving away too much of the plot, in addition to being a long-tenured employee Faye is a UAW union rep; she also, years prior, helped Reggie get a job at the plant and feels a kinship with him.

So when he privately reveals management decisions to her, she finds herself caught between the secrecy he requests, the best interests of her pals and herself, and her responsibilities as the plant's union representative.

Clearly, Skeleton Crew broaches on matters both weighty and rather poignant.

Yet while it certainly made me quite empathetic in a real-life sense, as dramatic theater I found it worthwhile yet well short of fantastic.

The first act, which sets up more frenzied action in Act II, feels overlong and a bit laborious, as we get to know Faye, Dez, Shanita and Reg, but without a whole lot actually happening across nearly 90 minutes.

As an opinion I heard from a few others as well, the play could stand to be "tightened up."

The second act is considerably more overtly dramatic as some unkind consequences get played out.

The realities Morisseau draws attention to are all quite compelling, maddening and identifiable. As noted above, the cast is excellent and Parsons directs things nicely on an impressive set designed by Scott Davis.

But while the universality of Skeleton Crew is appreciable, I would have welcomed some greater specificity in its insights.

Although the four cast members at Northlight are African-American, as is the writer and director--and certainly a large part of Detroit auto plants--I wasn't sure from watching the play if the characters were specified as being black.

If they were, I didn't discern how the script would have read much differently with a mixed-race cast. In other words, I wasn't greatly enlightened to how being black informed the characters' experiences.

For that matter, I didn't get any real sense about what working in an auto factory might be like.

Again, the commonality among us all is assuredly part of the point of Skeleton Crew--African-Americans with their livelihoods under duress at an auto plant in Detroit would understandably face the same emotions as anyone in a similar situation, anywhere--but particularly as part of a "Detroit Trilogy," I would have valued the global messages wrought through a narrower lens.

In this vein, that Faye is a lesbian shouldn't be a big deal, but I thought Morisseau might have artfully done a bit more with this truth, with possible observations about attitudinal changes Faye has experienced across her 29 years at the plant.

As it stands there is a lot of dialogue among 2, 3 and 4 of the characters, but beyond understandable concern over the factory's prospects--and the personal ramifications--there is too little that feels riveting, or revelatory.

In fair disclosure, the audience bestowed an instant and quite rousing standing ovation, likely appreciating far more about Skeleton Crew than the fine acting and thematically humanity.

I loudly applauded both these aspects, but just wasn't as engrossed in sum. Perhaps I know the realities all too well, and wanted a bit more in the way of illuminating drama.

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