Huntington's "Skeleton Crew": No Bones About It

Jonathan Lewis Dent, Toccarra Cash, Patricia R. Floyd & Maurice E. Parent in "Skeleton Crew"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

At a time like the present, with so many articulate high school students reminding us all of the innate power we have at the ballot box, Huntington Theatre Company is presenting the Boston area premiere of Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau. Though set in a Detroit stamping plant “somewhere around the year 2008”, it's a timely reminder of how national policies and events impact the everyday lives and livelihoods of real people up and down the political food chain. In her trilogy entitled Detroit Projects, which she admits is modeled after August Wilson's Century Cycle, the playwright questions, how did we go from a city of people who make cars to a city of people living in their cars? In Detroit '67, she wrote first about that city's 1967 riot and consequent police brutality, and in Paradise Blue she focused on a 1949 housing renewal act and aggressive gentrification. In Skeleton Crew (an apt title on several levels) the action takes place entirely in the break room of the city's last small auto plant still standing, which she describes as an “existential breakroom, a false space in a way, but a false space within a very real place”.

In a very real sense, the room is a metaphor for where the author's characters find themselves, as rumors of the plant's closing swirl around them. The Scenic Design by Wilson Chin serves as a fifth character in its meticulous attention to detail, from the ubiquitous hand-written signs (such as “No smoking FAYE” or an upcoming Unit Meeting of union members), refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, boom box, Mustang poster, time clock with punch cards, unisex bathroom and two bulletin boards. Behind these down-to-earth mundane elements there are some secrets (not to be revealed here) that all of the playwright's characters are hiding, not the least of which is how each confronts the primary issue of ethics vs. self-preservation, with survival foremost in their minds.

Patricia R. Floyd & Maurice E. Parent in "Skeleton Crew"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Faye (Patricia R. Floyd), a quintessential survivor with twenty-nine years on the factory assembly line, is fully aware that “any moment one of us could be the other”. Dez (Jonathan Louis Dent) dreams of life beyond the factory, hoping to open his own garage. Shanita (Toccarra Cash) a very pregnant mom-to-be, is a hard-working second generation assembly line worker, saving up enough to support her first child. And then there is Reggie (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), a graduate from the line who has been made a factory foreman, a promotion that makes him torn between his obligation to his fellow workers and management.

How each of these makes concessions in the name of “success” makes for a tightly woven narrative, with Morisseau sometimes tantalizingly withholding information that this fine cast, wonderfully Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, convey through nuances, unfinished thoughts and finely tuned gestures. Floyd is the perfect yet atypical matriarchal figure; Dent is a dreamer whose fantasies just might come true; Cash is a pluperfect timely deliverer of snappy dialogue. But it's Parent who provides the dramatic heft with his complex portrayal of the well-meaning middle man stuck in the middle of a dilemma. The other creative elements, from the apt Costume Design by Ari Fulton, to the intricate Lighting Design by Adam Honore, to the menacing Sound Design by Nathan Leigh, all contribute to this production's realistic feel and impact.

As Parent's character of Reggie puts it near the end of the play, he's running purely on “soul”.  Each of the foursome in her or his own way finds a way to cope with realities seemingly beyond their individual control. There are no bones about it: as the playwright puts it (and as those teens in the headlines might echo), it's time, or perhaps even past time, to “rise the hell up”.

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