Skeleton Crew, by Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Awoye Timpo. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Christian Henley and Ami Brabson; photo: Elizabeth Solaka
"Worry about that darkness out there."
Margaret Odette, Christian Henley; photo: Elizabeth Solaka
In the third of her her Detroit Trilogy plays, "Skeleton Crew," playwright Dominique Morisseau takes on the plight of an East Detroit factory where the economics of the country are showing poorly, affecting the lives and relationships of the workers who eke out a living there. These are people caught up in the strain of everyday life. One is single and very, very pregnant; one is incapable of living up to his potential without resorting to possible thuggery. One is trapped by the corporate structure though which he has hoped to broaden his horizons; one is hanging on by a thread while supporting her co-workers and friends through her bond with the Union. They share a break room in the recession that surrounds them, each investing in their work more than work deserves. Circumstances being what they are, this investment of themselves nearly breaks them all.
A two-act play with a hard first half, the payoff of the play is the fine second act in which all of the diverse seeds planted by the playwright in Act One grow, blossom and bloom into an excellent drama. Not as good a piece as her second play in the trilogy, "Paradise Blue," it is still a fine, intense piece about changes in the mid-western city, a theme that runs through the threesome. On the stage in Chester, MA this is a dramatic break from the usual summer fare and one that pays off handsomely.
Four actors do some of their best work, I believe, in this play. Each one has a story, a back story, and a future and the depths explored by the playwright are marvelous, giving us what we need and leaving us to guess the rest. Dez, played by Christian Henley, is a troubled younger man whose full concept of his place in this factory is never realized. He understands how his particular cog moves the world around him and he feels that his future is tied to moving up in the hierarchy of the machinery of industry. He is a man who makes mistakes, partially out of fear for the future, and partially out of understanding the realities of his world. He is fascinating.
Shanita, played by Margaret Odette, seems to be permanently expecting a child as she continues to work on the line. Her only dreams are of birth; her only hopes seem to be along those same lines. When her more romantic self takes hold of her momentarily she turns the physically difficult of preganancy into the mythic princess goal of great and irresistible beauty.
Daniel Morgan Shelley's Reggie is a man on the ladder of success, refusing to rattle the rung he stands on tenuously in order to battle for friends and for the rights of his crew. He is tense, irritable, loving and considerate, but still a stickler for rules, for form, for the way things are run even when he finds himself morally objecting to all that controls him.
Faye, a Lesbian mother of an adult son, is the Union Rep who knows her job is to advocate for her members, rallying her personal forces in defense of what is right. Ami Brabson is luminous in the role as her layers of self-defense peel away to reveal a fragile soul who needs to protect herself and finds she must relinquish protections and safeguards.
All four take their roles seriously and there is an almost bitter edge to the relationships they present to us. These four actors bring up emotional levels rarely seen in a new play. This is almost like Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" in its honesty and unrelenting presentation of "how it is." Shelley's rage is genuine. Odette's glee at finding friendship is enriching. Henley's refusal to be cowed is frightening and forceful. Brabson's self-deprecation is gut-wrenching. Whether low points or high points, these four actors all come through with moments that thrill and remain enpowering.
Awoye Timpo moves her actors through their difficulties and their resonances with fine reality. There isn't a false moment in this play thanks to the five principals. When the play gets too talky there is little that any of them can do, but when Morisseau is absolutely genuine and real the play is truly realistic and we are the eaves-droppers, a quality of theater that I always enjoy immensely when I can find it. In this play it is there to be involved in.
The production looks good with apprpriate costumes Elizabeth Pangburn, a set by David Towlun that is familiar and real, fine lighting by Lara Dubin and harsh, unromantic sound by Tom Shread that moves through the characters and through us.
This play is a stand-alone. It should be seen. And it should be seen with this company.
Ami Brabson and Daniel Morgan Shelley; photo: Elizabeth Solaka
Ami Brabson; photo: Elizabeth Solaka
Skeleton Crew plays at the Chester Theatre Company located in the Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, MA through July 23. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-354-7771 or go on line at chestertheatre.org