Wednesday, January 31, 2018

"Skeleton Crew"

Skeleton Crew
Dominique Morisseau

Margo Hall, Lance Gardner & Christian Thompson
FAYE: “You ‘fraid of ghosts?”
DEZ: “Them assembly line ghosts?  Hell yeah. ...
Say them empty plants a breeding ground for ‘em.”

The winter of 2008 was more than just cold and windy for Detroit.  It was a time when the year-old Great Recession was blowing hard through the entire country but no place with more chill-biting destruction than in the nation’s once-glorious auto capital, Detroit, home to an industry shutting down plants almost weekly.  In her Skeleton Crew, Dominique Morisseau takes a slice out of a few days’ lives of four workers in one of those plants, displaying the no-holes-barred, stark effects of one factory’s imminent closing on their lives.  In the play’s regional premiere at Marin Theatre (to be followed in March as a co-production at TheatreWorks SiliconValley), Skeleton Crew lays bare the tensions, fears, and angers that millions felt across America at that time.  But her gut-wrenching script and production also highlights the humor, hope, and heart that Americans everywhere somehow were still able to find in their day-to-day lives where their once solid foundations were suddenly crumbling away, no fault of their own.

We meet in a shabby, concrete-wall worker’s lounge the four people that Ms. Morisseau selects out of the thousands of similarly threatened auto workers for her focused examination.  As created by scenic designer Ed Haynes, this is a room that speaks volumes about the state of the failing industry and of management’s view of its workers.  A portable heater warms an otherwise cold room but cannot be plugged in at the same time the microwave is on.  On a wooden bench and a few hard chairs around a small table is all the lounging these folks will get to have.  Lighting designed by Steve Mannshardt is harsh, the kind that only cheap fluorescent bulbs emit.  The sounds of factory bells that control breaks and starts-stops of day are just some of the realism that Karin Graybash has created.  And through the opaque windows, we see projected, shadowy figures and fractured, floating pieces of assembly line machines (all designed by Mike Post), already portending a closure that in the play’s beginning is just a rampant rumor running through the lines.

Margo Hall & Lance Gardner
After twenty-nine years on the line in capacities wide and varied, Faye is just waiting for that thirtieth year to receive her full pension and health benefits for life.  Her aging body shows the wear-and-tear of all those years as well as the effects of fights with cancer; but her spirit is feisty and always up for a good-natured battle of wits and words, at which times her old body revs up into a dance of spastic jerks and jumps, with arms flailing and fingers pointing.  Margo Hall gives nothing short of an award-worthy performance, a true tour de force depiction of this out-lesbian union rep (just think about that for a moment) who regularly and with some glee ignores the posted signs of  “No Smoking, FAYE.”  She spouts one-liners like a hardened comic in a late-night bar (“If if was a spliff, we’d all be high) and philosophizes with an edge and an honesty that comes with all the hard knocks she’s gone (and is now going) through: “... [E]verybody got they bag of shit; you got yours and I got mine ...  Leave me to my own stink and don’t go tryin’ to air me out. 

And when she uses her rough, throaty voice to say, “I runnin’ on soul now ... Only thing that still got fuel in it,” one gets the feeling she is at that moment Every Worker, speaking for a whole nation of folks who in 2008 were feeling much the same way.  Margo Hall dominates this small stage with Faye’s rough-edged charisma, and she is a delight to get to know and to admire.

Tristan Cunningham
With popping pregnant, twenty-something, and single Shanita, Faye is like a mother, offering her a list of possible names (gender-neutral, of course) for her baby and providing daily encouragement for Shanita to continue to be the star employee that she is.  Tristan Cunningham’s Shanita talks a mile a minute in her enthusiasm for the work she is doing (“I feel like I’m building something important ... My touch, my special care, it matter”); and she is full of hope and belief that her hard work and the admiration everyone seems to have of her work will actually count for something, even if times get tougher.  Shanita already shows signs that she knows how to be a survivor, and Ms. Cunningham embeds a determination and steel-mindedness into her while also letting her occasionally burst with a few youthful moments.

Christian Thompson
Shanita is the focus of the puppy-love-filled eyes of Dez, an otherwise somewhat bumbling, sullen, and moody guy who is full of distrust for both the ploys of union and of management.  Christian Thompson’s Dez swings from explosive moments of bent-up anger and angst that erupt in expletive-filled, street-talk diatribes to moments where he is tongue-tied tender in his caring for Shanita.  He knows he is a management target for his oft-tardiness and sometimes slouching ways; but he is also aware he is a target on the streets just because of who he is as a young, black male.  Dez is a man who is prepared to deal with whatever comes his way (“Everybody just out to protect themselves, keep they own neck from gettin’ broke”).  Mr. Thompson knows how to make sure this that defiant, determined hot-head leaves his mark on us as a guy we are going to leave pulling for him, even for all his faults and furies.

Lance Gardner
The manager of these three is Reggie, a thirty-something family man who comes in every morning to hang in the lounge his hand-made signs to say the management things he would rather not have to say out loud.  (“You see your mama here?  No, then clean up after yourself.”)  Lance Gardner also shows contrasting, often contradictory sides of his character – all totally believable for a guy who may have to lay off everyone and then himself, including the woman (Faye) who is responsible for him to have the job he does.  He too can lose his cool and explode into shouting matches, especially with Dez whose job he is trying his best to protect as long as he can but is thwarted in doing so due to Dez’s tendency to self-destruct.  His Reggie is the manager that many have had to be in tough times, a man caught in the middle between friends he wants to protect and upper management he wants to impress so that maybe he (and his family) can in the end be protected.  And by the look in Mr. Gardner’s eyes, it is clear Reggie knows he can probably do neither.

Jade King Carroll directs this magnificent cast with an ability to take everyday life in a factory where lives are potentially falling apart and show how there are moments the day is still boring; moments, somehow funny; and moments totally lonely and scary.  Taking this brilliant script of Dominique Morisseau’s, he, the cast, and the creative team have given the Marin Theatre audience (and subsequently that of TheatreWorks) a realistic, thought-provoking, and emotional glimpse of what Detroit and many other cities and towns of America endured during what we now call the Great Recession of 2007.

Rating: 5 E 

Skeleton Crew continues through February 18, 2018 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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