Love, labor, loss

Through much of Skeleton Crew, the well-built drama currently playing at Artists Repertory Theatre, we can hear the machines. One of the play’s characters, a young woman named Shanita, whose fierce work ethic doesn’t crowd out her dreamy nature, talks about the music of the factory, the self-orchestrating noises of everything from the assembly lines where sheet metal gets stamped into car doors to the old refrigerator humming softly in the break room. There’s a musicality, to be sure, about Sharath Patel’s sound design, with its deft mix of ambient noises and industrial-soul hip-hop beatscapes. But more crucially, the subtle symphony of wheezing pumps and clanking metal suggests breath and movement, the restless, rhythmic life force of some great creature.

The further we get into playwright Dominique Morisseau’s tale of the waning days of a Detroit automobile plant, the more we recognize the importance of the factory’s breathing — not for its own sake, as a beast of corporate power — but as the lungs of a community.

The funky verisimilitude of Megan Wilkerson’s scenic design (which features dancers in shadow, like ghosts in the machine) is practically a character of its own in Artist Rep’s “Skeleton Crew.” Photo: David Kinder.

It’s a symbiotic relationship, to be sure. The workers examined here by Morisseau, who has written two previous plays about Detroit, depend on the factory for their middle-class livelihoods, or at least their middle-class aspirations. They put their backs into the work, and their problem-solving aptitude as well. In return, they get paychecks, and something just as vital: pride.

Morisseau’s characters are Rust Belt blue-collar inner-city blacks. So it’s not insignificant that each of them has been created with a sense of personal responsibility at the core, even as the slow turns of the plot sometimes put such positive traits in the shade. The story’s emotional fabric is thick with the tangled lines between self-interest and loyalty.

There’s a funky verisimilitude at work here — in the grubby realism of Megan Wilkerson’s scenic design, in the vernacular grammar spoken, in the way race complicates the politics of workplace survival and advancement — but this is primarily a story about class not color, about the contemporary predicament of American labor.

The time is 2008, when the American auto industry is weakened and the Great Recession is a gathering storm. At one of the last auto plants still going in Detroit, Faye — a longtime employee and the shop’s union rep — holds court in the break room. Soon, a twin-axle plot rolls out.

Reggie, a foreman, confides to Faye that their factory is next in line to be shut down. He’s seeking her cooperation, asking her to keep the news secret while they work “to figure out what we can do to soften this blow.” But he’s management and she’s union, answerable to different groups despite their shared concerns. For each of them, there is danger in speaking or in not speaking. And though they’re both hard-nosed, they show a solicitude toward each other that arouses co-workers’ suspicions.

Suspicion is a busy two-way street around Dez, a young line worker with a chip on his shoulder. He balks at authority and packs a gun, yet comes across like a shy puppy when he’s trying to get a date with the aforementioned Shanita, who is as resistant as she is pregnant. Their futures, too, are at the mercy of Reggie’s secret.

The Dez/Shanita romantic subplot is funny and charming without detracting from the overall emotional weight of the story, and it’s especially affecting in the moments when Vin Shambry, as Dez, drops the mask of toughness and shows glimmers of little-boy glee and innocence, or when Tamera Lyn as Shanita tries to jump back behind her shield of cautious reserve after a telling lapse.

Longtime connections turn into lines of tension between Reggie (Bobby Bermea) and Faye (Shelley B. Shelley), with the stakes high all around. Photo: David Kinder

Open conflict between Reggie and Dez ratchets up the tension, but the play’s powertrain really is the uneasy alliance between Faye and Reggie. Faye gets the most colorful lines (“If ‘if’ was a spliff, we’d all be high.”) but Shelley B. Shelley never lets the character come across as a stock sassy black matron; she’s convincing as the sage veteran of the shop floor, and lets us glimpse depths of defensiveness and worry well before the script reveals her underlying guilt and grief.

And while director William (Bill) Earl Ray draws out vivid performances all around, while imbuing the whole production a strong sense of shape, rhythm and momentum, Bobby Bermea as Reggie still stands out. As a middle manager, Reggie is both the rock and the hard place, and Bermea registers the perpetual dilemma, the internal code-switching, and the mounting frustration that results. Yet just as key are the flecks of admiration and affection that he shows for Faye, even as she bedevils him with her stubbornness.

It’s that latter set of feelings that explains the risks and sacrifices which make up the play’s denouement, the love that lets these laborers move and breathe with pride a little while longer.

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