Review: ‘Skeleton Crew’ looks at morality amid crisis

From left, Shanita (Tristan Cunningham), Faye (Margo Hall) and Dez (Christian Thompson) are auto plant workers in Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew.” Photo by Kevin Berne.
From left, Shanita (Tristan Cunningham), Faye (Margo Hall) and Dez (Christian Thompson) are auto plant workers in Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew.” Photo by Kevin Berne.

Daily Post Theater Critic

The collapse of the auto industry in Detroit frames the story of “Skeleton Crew,” a 2016 play by Dominique Morisseau, which opened over the weekend at Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto, presented by TheatreWorks.

The staging is a co-production with Marin Theater Company, which mounted the show earlier this year in the North Bay.
Set in Detroit in 2008, “Skeleton Crew” revolves around four autoworkers as they wander in and out of the breakroom of their metal stamping factory. The show is the third in a trilogy by Morisseau about Detroit.

“Skeleton Crew” is a flashback to the world of Clifford Odets and the labor plays of America’s 1930s depression.

In “Skeleton Crew,” early on, the plant risks closing. There are mysterious thefts of metal materials at night. Under increasing stress, the employees joke caustically with each other, and sometimes confront. There is sexual flirtation, illicit card playing and gambling.

The cast

Among the four actors, Faye (Margo Hall) is a lesbian breast cancer survivor who continues to smoke. As the union rep, with 29 years on the job, she hopes to make it to 30 years before leaving, when her retirement package will be better.

Twenty-something Dez (Christian Thompson), angry at the rep’s inaction, oscillates back and forth between support and criticism of the union. In his backpack, he carries a gun.

Young Shanita (Tristan Cunningham) is pregnant, and afraid of losing her benefits at a difficult health time. Reggie (Lance Gardner), their supervisor, just bought a house, which he may not be able to keep if the factory closes.

“Skeleton Crew” is about the decline and fall of American industrial cities. Union and management politics collide. Early on the supervisor, an old family friend of the union rep, asks her to stay quiet about the closing, “to soften the blow,” while he figures out a strategy.

Moral ambiguity

More generally, the play is about the moral ambiguity that emerges in economic crisis; and how that is part of the decay of society.

“Skeleton Crew” is a talky play. The story sometimes moves sideways and repeats issues, rather than moving forward. The characters do a lot of explaining about the types of people they are; and the types of people others are. The show is stronger in the second half.

In the Palo Alto production, designer Ed Haynes’ run-down, dingy break-room set is a highlight; as is Mike Post’s projection design, which throws onto the walls black-and-white, cinema-verite, assembly-line video; nicely supplemented by sound designer Karin Graybash’s clanking factory audio track.

America long ago stopped being the automobile manufacturing capital of the world. To prosper, we need visionary leadership that runs ahead of the curve, and not in the past.

Just last week, for example, data emerged that the American coal industry now provides energy that is more expensive than the energy currently provided by solar and wind technologies. Industrial science has changed.

To avoid more American economic collapses like the Detroit auto business, it’s time to grow.

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John Angell Grant is the Daily Post’s theater critic. Email him at [email protected].