Long before all four of the plant’s employees have entered the dingy, depressingly plain break room, we know what’s going to happen. It’s the same thing that happened at the GM plant in Janesville. The same thing that happened at Oscar Meyer here in Madison.
In Dominique Morisseau’s play Skeleton Crew, all of these workers are struggling to hang onto their jobs in Detroit’s flailing auto industry during the great recession of 2008. They’ve got their suspicions that bad news is on the horizon, but we know it for sure. Where factories once hummed with activity around the clock, soon many of the giant buildings will be silenced, filled only with ghosts. The workers, some of whom have been with the company for decades, will be casualties of declining markets, increased automation, and the ease of shipping jobs overseas.
Knowing the ending of Forward Theater’s production of Skeleton Crew, on stage in the Playhouse at Overture through September 23, makes it even more poignant and heartbreaking. Just as the employees feel helpless to change their fate, the audience is equally powerless to change the course of recent history. All we can do is witness the character that these four Detroit natives exhibit — each a complex individual that obliterates stereotypes, each pushed to his or her limit as the economic rug is pulled out from under them.
Morisseau has been compared to theater legends August Wilson, Lynn Nottage, Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov and Clifford Odets. That’s a lot for any writer to live up to. But seeing FTC’s production, the comparisons become clear. Part of her “Detroit Trilogy,” Skeleton Crew is an homage to the working class—people who are trying to do their jobs, take care of their families, and get by. It’s also a tribute to her hometown of Detroit, Michigan; a city once known for its booming auto industry and the music of Motown, which is now more often identified with poverty, urban blight and political corruption. The drama focuses on both the strained relationships and tested loyalties of family members — in this case a family made up of co-workers who cling to each other during difficult times. Finally, the script has grace notes of lyricism, snippets of poetry woven into unexpected moments, in the midst of almost mind-numbing repetition of the assembly lines in an auto-stamping plant.
As Faye, Marti Gobel carries a lot of weight in the production. A 29-year veteran of the auto plant, the hard work on the line has taken a toll on Faye’s body, as has illness, grief and simple bad luck. She wears her personal tragedies around her neck; they slow her pace and bend her back. Faye is also the union steward and mother hen of the group—hiding her own pain, trying to make sure everyone will be taken care of when the worst happens, and keeping tempers from running too high. Gobel’s low, gravelly voice is so authoritative she rarely has to raise it to win an argument. That makes the moments in the second act, when Gobel allows the audience to see Faye’s fragility, even more startling and raw. Likewise, when we glimpse her few minutes of mental escape — listening to Detroit’s own Aretha Franklin and smoking a cigarette in the deserted break room — it’s almost startling to see a lightness she used to possess.
Candace Thomas embodies the young, over-achiever Shanita with precise diction and confidence. Visibly pregnant, at odds with the father of the child and her own parents, Shanita still takes great pride in her work and her spotless record with management. She’s also working through her insecurities about the prospect of life as a single mother in haunting, recurring dreams. As Shanita closes her eyes and speaks about the calming, beautiful “music” she hears in the din of the plant’s heavy machinery, Thomas gives the character an otherworldly zen. And in a moment of real clarity at the top of the second act, she also delivers a spirited plea for all of us to work together instead of against one another, urging drivers in a construction zone to merge instead of erupting in rage. The Saturday night crowd was so affected by this monologue she was rewarded with spontaneous applause.
Milwaukee based actor DiMonte Henning occupies the uncomfortable no-man’s land between his friends who work the on the factory floor and upper management — those who wear dirty coveralls to work and those who wear buttoned up Oxfords. A successful supervisor who shares a special bond with Faye, Henning does a terrific job of “walking the line” between the two groups, preserving his compassion while enforcing regulations and showing us his tension in having to choose sides. When his rage finally explodes, it is the product of being caught in the middle of too many fights; wanting to do the right thing instead of what’s good for business.
As Dez, Sherrick Robinson is the least predictable of the group. He also takes the longest to settle into his character — the malcontent worker with a soft spot for Shanita and plans to open his own garage someday. When he rails against his boss for assuming the worst about him it’s a reality check for the audience as well.
These stories unspool and intersect slowly and rhythmically in a room where nothing much is supposed to happen. The break room, grimy and colorless, is the place to rest, to wait, to be still. But it’s here, between shifts, where the pace of the play is established, then gradually accelerates. Director Jake Penner keeps the story on track, while allowing the actors to move naturalistically through the space. He keeps the conflicts right sized until eventually the machinery of the plant, and the family of workers that was formed there, breaks down. Only the interstitial projection of dancers in motion, meant to suggest the synchronized factory assembly lines, works better in concept than practice.
Scenic designer Joseph Varga frames the hyper-realistic, dreary break room with much larger building structures, positioning this auto plant as the foundation of the city — soon to be empty and unstable.