Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through March 3
By ANNE SPISELMAN
“This is the hardest play I’ve ever written to date,” says Dominique Morisseau in the program notes for Northlight Theatre’s terrific production of her “Skeleton Crew.”
It’s also the best work in her Detroit trilogy, which includes “Detroit ’67,” produced by Northlight a few years ago, and “Paradise Blue,” set in 1949 and staged by TimeLine Theatre Company last year. Ron OJ Parson directed all three shows, and his collaboration with the playwright peaks here.
“Skeleton Crew” stands out because Morisseau crafts compelling characters we care about and eschews melodrama in favor of a real-life situation that affects many. Set in 2008 at the height of the Great Recession, the action takes place entirely in the break room of small auto stamping factory that is at serious risk of shutting down, as the others in town already have.
Here we meet three line employees and a supervisor and learn about their current hopes and hardships, as well as what the impending plant closure means for them. Though flawed and faced with daunting moral dilemmas, they all are basically decent people who are concerned about each other as well as themselves.
Fiftysomething Faye, the union representative, is a 29-year veteran who hopes to make it to 30 years to reap the better pension benefits. Jacqueline Williams gives one of her finest performances as this tough but warm-hearted lesbian who is so fiercely proud of her ability to survive on her own that she’s kept her homelessness secret. Her contrasting coworkers are Shanita (AnJi White), a single mother-to-be who loves having a skilled job and is very good at it, and Dez (Bernard Gilbert), a young hothead who’s planning to start is own business.
As the supervisor, Reggie, Kelvin Roston Jr. has to navigate the difficult path between protecting the jobs of the other three and catering to the growing demands of his bosses to tighten controls and cut costs. When auto parts start disappearing, he suspects Dez, who is already on his wrong side because he doesn’t respect the rules. Faye doesn’t have any use for them, either—especially the signs that say “No Smoking Faye”–but she and Reggie have a long and deep personal connection through his deceased mother.
Roston is most potent as the increasingly distraught Reggie. Desperate to keep his own job so he can continue to support his family, he turns to Faye for help because, no matter how hard he thinks about it, he can’t find solutions. Management wants him to fire Dez, but Faye begs him not to because the boy is a good worker. Reggie is pushed to the limit in a confrontation with an insensitive higher-up we only hear about afterward and, although he takes a stand we applaud, it is Faye who makes a big sacrifice to save all the men.
All this happens without the violence in the other plays in the Detroit trilogy. Yes, someone packs a gun, but it is never used. Yes, there are heated arguments, but they never come to blows. Yes, an annoyed Shanita, played with quiet dignity and sensuality by White, accuses Dez of sexual harassment when he repeatedly gets on her case, but by the end, thanks to her “raging hormones” (she’s pregnant, remember) and his genuine niceness, there’s the possibility of a romance between them.
While “Skeleton Crew” is very strong as a character study, it could be better on plot development. It takes a long time to get to the point, there is too much repetition, and some of the exposition is clumsy, as when Faye tells Dez part of her back story that he would already know.
The most dramatic aspect of the evening is Scott Davis’ scenic design. Above the grungy break room with its rudimentary kitchen and electrical system that can’t accommodate the space heater Reggie brings and the microwave at the same time is an automated conveyor-belt assembly line that starts up between scenes. With Keith Partham’s harsh lighting and Ray Nardelli’s clanging sound design, it simulates an unbearably noisy, unpleasant factory floor. But Shanita likes it and calls the noise “music”–a most telling reminder of how much a job can mean.