The output of playwright Dominique Morisseau has finally found a Washington home — and on the evidence of "Skeleton Crew," it's high time it occurred. A social observer of invigorating insight, she reveals a knack in this absorbing comedy-drama for nuanced accounts of the travails of blue-collar men and women and the questionable choices that illuminate their complicated lives.
Autoworkers of color in a cutthroat economy provide the characters and premise of Morisseau's well-made play, set in the plant's employee break room and dexterously mounted on Studio Theatre's Mead stage by director Patricia McGregor.
Here, we meet factory veteran Faye, a callused lioness played to the rough-hewed hilt by Caroline Stefanie Clay who's caught in a classic dramatic vice: As union rep and confidante to management team member Reggie (an exemplary Tyee Tilghman), she's privy to news about the plant's dismal fate that she cannot share with her younger colleagues (Jason Bowen's Dez and Shannon Dorsey's Shanita) on the assembly line.
On this theatrical scaffolding, Morisseau develops — with a warmth that never congeals into sentimentality — the boundaries of comradeship among these workers, the lengths to which their solidarity extends, and what limits are imposed on it by their solipsistic concerns for survival. And survival, in a Detroit rocked by hardship, is the name of the game.
As rumors multiply about the plant closing, fear and paranoia become entrenched in the humdrum routine. Sheets of steel go missing from the plant; Dez brings a gun to work; Reggie embarks on an increasingly ruthless campaign to weed out weaker workers; and Faye's pride — she's described by a co-worker as "tough as bricks" — slowly starts to crumble.
Comparisons inevitably are going to be made between "Skeleton Crew" and another drama of tensions among a beleaguered American working class, Lynn Nottage's "Sweat," which had a run at Arena Stage before winning a Pulitzer Prize and eventually setting up shop for a short spell on Broadway.
While "Sweat" raises compelling issues about racial and immigrant scapegoating and other insidious offshoots of the manufacturing sector's decline, it is a more clinical exercise than Morisseau's play. For sure, Nottage is seeking to trace a different set of fault lines in the seismic upheavals in the proletarian ranks. But "Skeleton Crew" burrows in more deeply, through figures with more riveting histories and personalities, and the impact of these attributes makes for a more rewarding evening. The play is one of a trio of works in her Detroit Project; and the playwright turned her focus this past summer to the urban education system, in the world premiere of "Pipeline" at Lincoln Center Theater. Though lucid, and with a vibrant central character, it lacked the sustained narrative dynamism of "Skeleton Crew."
At Studio Theatre, no figure reflects Morisseau's dynamic approach as keenly as Clay's Faye. Anyone who's spent time in a workplace knows just such a "character": With 29 years on the line, making car doors and sewing car interiors, Faye feels as if she herself runs the place. The break room, authentically rendered by set designer Tim Brown down to the manual time clock on the wall, is Faye's undisputed turf — in ways that become ever clearer as the precarious circumstances in which she finds herself are revealed.
"I'm in the bulletin boards. I'm in the chipped paint," Faye declares, about her own staying power. Clay indeed has power to spare, and you are made aware via her raw, intensely focused performance that Faye has held on to her job in part by finding other outlets for her excess energy — at least one of those pastimes being financially ruinous. McGregor seats around Clay at the break room table other top-drawer actors.
Bowen invests in Dez an infectious, roguish charm that may or may not belie some dangerous extracurricular activities. But that quality certainly helps to explain why pregnant Shanita, embodied with an easily punctured disdain by the irresistible Dorsey, has a thing for him. Tilghman, meanwhile, deftly handles the tricky channel an actor must navigate, playing the heavy of the piece, with a heart.
Theatrical embroidery is mercifully kept to a minimum: this is ethics-driven meat-and-potatoes drama, in the Arthur Miller vein. The production's physical representation of an assembly line, with actors appearing upstage between scenes to apply grinding power tools to metal car doors, feels superfluous. The subtler sparks of "Skeleton Crew" are the ones that really matter.
Skeleton Crew, by Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Patricia McGregor. Set, Tim Brown; costumes, Marci Rodgers; lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Everett Elton Bradman; production stage manager, John Keith Hall. About two hours. $20-$85. Through Oct. 8 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.