If Detroit’s ‘Skeleton Crew’ at the Globe Has Hope, Maybe We Can Too

“Life ain’t fair,” says somebody in Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, now at the Old Globe Theatre’s White Theatre. Who says it? Doesn’t matter. All four of the overstressed characters know it. WE all know it, too.

But life does go on. And not without reward for the virtuous.

The year is 2008, the place an automobile plant in Detroit, the year before Chrysler and General Motors both declared bankruptcy. Five years before the city itself joined them. Pretty near to the bottom.

The few workers still on the job are either the best, the luckiest, the most compliant or some combination. And management has become less about craftsmanship for value and more about how much profit can still be squeezed from a rotting enterprise.

Despite their absurdly extravagant paychecks, the soulless CEOs are not the villains. Nor are the middle-management overseers, seduced away from even the modest fulfillments of actual work. The predatory financial jackals? Simply gathering whatever fruit falls nearest.

Truth be told, there are no villains, just the cruel grinding of life’s cycles. The Industrial Age merging into the Tech Era. Automation replacing handiwork. Not better nor worse, not right or wrong, maybe not even that different. But chaos for those caught in the cracks.

Amari Cheatom, Rachel Nicks, Brian Marable and Tonye Patano, left to right, in Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew at the Old Globe. Jim Cox Photo

This is a play worth pondering, a very American play displaying wounds so far unhealed from centuries of struggling with the downsides of capitalism, immigration, slavery and ignorance.

And it’s all there in metaphoric splendor, captured by the desperate struggles of four minor characters who may not be as random as they first seem.

Old Faye is the resident senior, shop steward for a pitifully shrunken union, hanging on a few more months to reach the next plateau for retirement. Young Dez, bursting with restless ambition, struts his ghetto defenses. The lovely Shanita, glowing with late-term pregnancy, can hardly hide her pride in her skills.  The foreman Reggie, his neat necktie a badge of promotion, broods on the responsibilities of keeping overworked laborers productive right up to the moment when the bosses pull the plug.

It’s a crew that any employer could cherish. But instead the stench of a vast industry flop-sweat is growing. There are at least three times as many lockers in this break room as the remaining skeleton crew needs, testament to the direction of the plant’s tilt. Every conversation reveals more “what-if?”.  The edge is so near, the desperation so palpable.

The playwright is in no hurry to reach the breaking point, maybe because there’s no honest way to make it all better. There will be victims. Still, whatever will eventually happen, there remains hope for more of these people (and the multitudes they each represent) than might have been expected.

And that goes for Detroit itself, where a genuinely remarkable and even moving renaissance is suggesting that a tortured and wretched community groping its way back toward survival may serve as a metaphor for the rest of America and perhaps the human race.

Meanwhile, back to the Globe stage.

It takes many of us some time to settle into the unfamiliar rhythms of trash-talk, the lash of nervous bravado and the persecution hangovers which carry this play along. But it’s worth the effort. The form may be exotic but the content is vividly identifiable. Among Morrisseau’s gifts as a dramatist is the ability to maintain core honesty and integrity without losing contact through layers of representation. She delivers, and in a form which enhances her points. Fairness isn’t the point. Truth is.

Amari Cheatom and Rachel Nicks in Skeleton Crew at the Old Globe. Jim Cox Photo

Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, a treasure from San Diego’s Moxie Theatre, makes an impressive Globe debt with a fine-tuned staging that matches sound and movement precisely to the text.

Her cast, itself something of a skeleton crew for such a rich brew, reflects a patience and faith in the path laid by author and director.

When Tonye Patano, as the seen-it-all Faye, says that losing her home, her family and her job reduces her to “running on soul,” the communication between artist and audience is complete. When Rachel Nicks launches one of her sincere soliloquies, on rush-hour traffic or the rewards of work well done, the other characters and the audience are equally enthralled.

We love them all eventually, but the two guys take longer to get and seem less viable. Amari Cheatom has the knack of threatening explosive turmoil by his tight carriage and laser outbursts that set up Dez as the character nearest the edge while Brian Marable wrestles endlessly with the balance between he who must provide for his own and he who must enforce unfair rules. The two build unobtrusively to a brief shared gesture that anchors the entire play.

Tim Mackabee’s set is beyond dreary, somewhere in a hell of formica counters, linoleum tiles, metal chairs and plastic everything else. Sherrice Mojgani’s lighting design is barely enough more than just cruel fluorescence.

Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ costumes go far beyond what could be expected, so subtly balanced in every case – just consider the coats that each individual wears – to find that edge that this entire show endlessly skirts.

 (Continues in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May 7, 2017.)



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