This past Saturday, Trinity Repertory Company’s production of the off-Broadway comedy-drama “Skeleton Crew” captivated audiences with a profound, clever and freshly contemporary take on the ever-elusive “American Dream.” Written by Dominique Morisseau, a playwright lauded for her intimate renderings of the lives of the American working class, “Skeleton Crew” follows the rough-and-tumble workdays of a makeshift family of Detroit auto workers during the Great Recession.
The performance begins with a dark stage. Strobe lights flash, intense industrial techno beats start to pound and actors, wearing reflective construction vests, run out from behind the double doors and begin dancing to the sounds of scraping metal; the seriousness and specificity of their movements signify the rigorous technicality of their work.
The music fades and the stage lights flick on. In struts Shanita (Shenyse Harris ’18), fiercely pretty and pregnant. After setting down her purse, she checks the mini-fridge and, disappointed, snaps, “Who’s been touching my salad dressing again?”
Co-producer of Showtime’s popular working class comedy-drama “Shameless,” Morisseau is a pro at clever character-establishing banter, which reappears in “Skeleton Crew.” In response to Shanita’s caustic accusation, Faye, played by Lizan Mitchell, the dignified, cynical matriarch of the plant family, snaps back with a sharp remark that incriminates Dez, played by Will Adams ’19, the macho, sexually frustrated scapegoat of everyone’s jokes. Reggie, portrayed by Jude Sandy ’05 MA’09, the tie-wearing plant supervisor, calmly reprimands Faye for smoking indoors for the thousandth time. As he is a close family friend of Faye’s, Reggie’s disciplinary efforts are largely in vain.
The action takes place in a workers’ break room: the set features a cheap couch, a mini-fridge, a microwave, a half-empty pot of coffee and a bulletin board with a sign that reads “Unit Meeting Thursday.” From the cardboard Bankers Boxes to the tacky, middle-school gymnasium-esque wall tiling, no detail is spared.
Within the first 30 minutes, the plot takes the expected dramatic turn. The plant is going to be shut down within the year. Reggie confides this in Faye, swearing her to secrecy, and Faye spends the first act torn between her loyalty to Reggie, her sort-of-godson and supervisor, and her sense of duty to Shanita and Dez, whose dreams are hanging in the balance.
Morisseau manages to again create characters who remain complex and avoid becoming carictatures — despite certain shortcomings and tropes apparent in Adams’ portrayal of Dez — while still clearly working to represent broader social issues.
Each character is struggling with their own “bag of shit.” Having lost her house to the bank, Faye is secretly sleeping on the rec room couch. Dez wants to start a repair shop but can’t come up with the cash. Shanita is grappling with the prospect of raising a child on her own. Hoping to provide a better life for his wife and kids, Reggie struggles with his desire to maintain his blue-collar roots while working in a managerial position. Morisseau’s script thus gives the viewer an immediate sense of the intimacy and tension that makes these co-workers a family.
To bridge critical parts of the play, actors — keepers of America’s “skeleton” — engage in symbolic dances representative of the demanding technicality of their labor as auto-plant workers — a clever way to represent industrial work within the confines of the stage. They provide a welcome change of pace from the play’s otherwise measured, dialogue-weighted cadence.