Working the line at an auto-stamping plant in Detroit, or at a processing plant in Indiana, or anywhere in industrial America, we might find a mother like Faye (Caroline Stefanie Clay), the central character of Dominique Morisseau’s charged new dramedy Skeleton Crew (★★★½).
The third in the playwright’s cycle of plays examining eras that transformed her Motor City hometown, Skeleton Crew opens Studio Theatre’s Main Series season with a must-see performance by D.C. native Clay in the lead role. Clay plants both feet firmly inside the dusty Timberlands of this hard-working black woman and survivor who perhaps overestimates her invulnerability, the way that many self-sufficient folk tend to do.
Faye’s been on that factory line since before her co-workers Dez (Jason Bowen) and Shanita (Shannon Dorsey) were even born. Yet, as proud, even boastful, as she may be regarding her experience and seniority, and her top-dog status as a union rep, she still depends on the job and the paycheck just like everybody else.
So when she ferrets out a rumor, that becomes a hot tip, that becomes an airtight advance warning of the plant’s imminent shutdown, she’s as pinned to the wall by desperation as all those other poor schmoes will be — once they find out the end is coming. But Faye has her reasons for not saying a thing.
She’s old-school, a never let ’em see you sweat, maternal busybody who relishes stirring everybody else’s pot, but will be damned before she grants even friends a peek under the lids of what she’s got cooking. Unknowable, though everyone knows her, Clay’s bold performance locates Faye and bares her true character inside and out, while still protecting some of the woman’s most closely held secrets.
Morisseau’s script delights in planting secrets and lies behind each character’s public face. Strictly on-the-job friendships have bred an entire cast of double and triple lives, hidden purposes, and allegiances. All they know for certain is that some criminal is robbing the plant of greater and greater caches of equipment and materials. There could be multiple liars or thieves among the four employees we meet inside the break-room, the play’s single location and the wellspring of most factory floor scuttlebutt.
Or, it could be that Faye and gun-toting striver Dez, pregnant dreamer Shanita, and caught-in-the-middle manager Reggie (Tyee Tilghman) are all honest, salt-of-the-earth Americans who deserve better treatment from their corporate bosses. The characters’ good or bad intentions ultimately are a matter the play won’t clarify by providing all the salient facts.
Director Patricia McGregor provides space for the cast to draw out the gnawing tension and discomfort that fills Tim Brown’s perfectly rendered employees’ lounge — complete with a UAW sign, lit just so. Some of that space is carved out by Skeleton Crew‘s generosity of spirit in recognizing that each of these workers has their own ground to stand on, their own aspirations to preserve. All their voices get heard.
And, as Dez might put it, they’ve got jokes, too. Between glancing commentary on the mortgage crisis, and deep reflections about a character’s closeted sexuality, Morisseau writes some mighty funny dialogue, particularly in exchanges between Dez and the unimpressed object of his affection, Shanita. Bowen and Dorsey roll with every bite of their banter, while finding, like Clay, darker dimensions to play around the edges of humor.
They can’t save the more crudely expository patches, however, that flatten some lines into baldly declared plot points, and occasionally render Dez or Reggie as icons of general cultural norms and concerns, rather than as specific individuals. While Dez’s story eventually develops as an intriguing deconstruction of stereotypes, Reggie’s, both in conception and per Tilghman’s portrayal, doesn’t carry the same weight.
But the play, and Clay, make of Faye a fully fleshed out human being. Perhaps you haven’t met her yet, but she’s out there, trying to make the best choices for herself and for those she cares about, sticking her neck out without getting her head handed to her. She persists, and so do her friends, but the truth is, there’s a sad end coming to one or more of them.
Reaching its bittersweet denouement, like a shuttered factory or a childhood dream, Skeleton Crew seems to coast into park, rather than stop on a dime, but that’s just the way things end sometimes.
Skeleton Crew runs to October 8, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St., NW. Tickets are $20 to $85. Call 202-332-3300, or visit StudioTheatre.org.