The workplace can give rise to unlikely friendships – bonds that may prove resilient, or not. As with any other kind of family, it's hard to know until they're tested.
That testing is the essence of Skeleton Crew, Dominique Morisseau's (often brilliantly) talky two-act play about a Detroit auto plant on the verge of an angst-provoking shutdown. It's playing through July 15 at People's Light in Malvern. Set during the great recession, "somewhere around 2008," the work is the final installment in Morisseau's trilogy titled The Detroit Project. The People's Light production, directed by Steve H. Broadnax III with keen attention to the poetry of its language, is engrossing and finally explosive.
Skeleton Crew is part of a nascent body of work commenting on America's deindustrialization. Next season, both People's Light and the Philadelphia Theatre Company will stage Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat, inspired by the plight of steel workers in Reading.
The title Skeleton Crew refers to the bare-bones staffing of a factory, just sufficient to keep it operating. But it hints, too, at a metaphorical meaning – the stripping away of both material comforts and humanity by bosses who blithely refer to a veteran employee as "dead weight."
The play's four characters, all African American, interact in the break room of a sheet-metal stamping plant, where they rag one another and defy plant regulations by smoking, gambling, and hiding contraband.
Tony Cisek's super-realistic set, with its distressed couch, beat-up lockers, bulletin board, table, and kitchenette, puts us firmly in the world of the play. Curtis Craig's sound design, evoking the hum and clatter of the factory floor, and Jeromy Hopgood's video projections of the surrounding city, vistas of both ruin and regeneration, summon up the larger worlds in which these men and women move.
The play's central conflict is a matter of clashing loyalties. Reggie (Brian Marable), a proudly white-collar foreman, exhorts union rep Faye (Melanye Finister, sympathetic in her growing despair) to keep a little secret: This plant will be closing, and its workers will soon be out on the street.
Reggie, who knows just how thin a line separates him from his blue-collar colleagues, promises to fight for a fair severance package. Meanwhile, the company wants production to continue with maximum efficiency. The middle-aged Faye, close to Reggie's late mother, helped the young supervisor get his start. Now, she feels torn between their quasi-filial bond and her duty to warn her fellow union members.
Complicating the situation, someone is stealing from the plant. The prickly, disgruntled Dez (Joshua E. Nelson, likable beneath his aggression) is a suspect. When he isn't dreaming of escape into entrepreneurship, he's either flirting with – or harassing, depending on your perspective – Shanita (Patrese D. McClain), who is pregnant by an unnamed man. Faye has problems of her own: a distant son, medical bills, and itches for gambling and nicotine.
The People's Light ensemble is altogether fine, but the standouts are two actors who have performed this much-produced play elsewhere. McClain's Shanita is delightfully self-aware – a little bit tough, a little bit soft, stylish (in Marla Jurglanis' 2018 cold-shoulder and flared-sleeve fashions), and very funny. Marable is superb as Reggie, a man on the precipice who falls but lands on his feet.
Not much actually happens in Skeleton Crew beyond the baring of souls and the subtle shifting of relationships. That may be enough.