Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” now playing at Westport Country Playhouse, is unlike anything you’re likely to have seen on stage before. Born in Detroit, Morisseau longed to give voice to the African Americans who struggle to make a living there, as Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson did for the people of Pittsburgh. In an interview quoted in the playhouse program, Morisseau said she seeks justice for her characters — how they are getting, or not getting, the things they want in life, how they are being measured by each other, by those who have status over them and by the world.
Drifting in and out of a break room at a Detroit auto plant are four characters — tense and resentful Dez, proud worker and soon-to-be-single mom Shanita, tough union rep Faye and anxious foreman Reggie. They think they have carved secure niches for themselves with regular shifts, benefits and overtime, but it’s 2008 and the ground is shifting beneath them. One by one, plants are closing and rumors are flying that theirs is next.
Reggie confides in Faye that the rumors are true, but begs her not to tell the other workers until he can try to work out the best deal for everyone. Reggie owes his job and family affection to Faye — she was the lover of his deceased mother. Faye shares Reggie’s pride in his success and wants to support him but is mindful of her obligations to the workers.
Reggie is nervously trying to navigate the no-man’s land between management and the assembly line. He‘s determined to hang on to the life he’s made for himself and his family, but keenly aware his workers are ill prepared for unemployment. He doesn’t know if the best strategy is to make demands on his supervisor or keep mum. He’s afraid lobbying for his workers will jeopardize his own position.
As Dez, Leland Fowler is a frayed bundle of barely suppressed rage and resentment. Recognizing the dangers of Detroit and the precariousness of his position, he hides a gun in his locker. He hopes to own a garage some day and may, or may not, be filching parts from the factory.
Dez reveals his vulnerable side in interactions with co-worker Shanita. When she tosses a crumb of attention his way, his face lights up in an ecstatic, white-toothed grin.
Toni Martin glories in the role of the confident and hopeful Shanita, who feels so fulfilled by her assembly line job that she turns down an offer to work in a copy center.
Shanita relates strange dreams of going into labor on the factory floor. Amid clouds of dust, the contractions suddenly stop and no baby emerges. She doesn’t understand the meaning of the dream, but the audience does. Of all the characters, Shanita is the most blindsided by the plant’s closing.
As Reggie, Sean Nelson lets the insecurity show through his officious bluster. He tries to maintain order by making threats and stapling rules and warnings on the bulletin board, but Faye nonchalantly disregards his smoking ban and Dez openly defies him. Nelson evokes sympathy as a character beset by moral ambiguities and trying desperately to maintain control in an impossible situation.
As Faye, the 29-year veteran of the plant, Perri Gaffney is a force of nature, the unsentimental earth mother of the group, the one they rely on, consciously or not. As the other characters vent their frustrations and express their dreams, she keeps her own counsel, though she may have the most to lose by the plant’s closing.
The acting in “Skelton Crew” is vigorous and the cast sensitively directed by LA Williams. Though not much happens in the course of two hours — that’s part of the point — the play holds one’s interest throughout. Caite Hevner’s set is effectively cluttered and industrial lighting by Xavier Pierce flashes and changes color to indicate time lapses. Percussive music by Chris Lane adds to the ambience without dominating it.
“Skeleton Crew” is playing at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, CT, Tuesday -Sunday through June 22. For tickets, starting at $30, go to westportplayhouse.org or call 1-888-927-7529.