In some cases, the specific time or geographic location in which a story takes place is inconsequential. There may be a passing mention of a region or a reference to an era embedded in the action, but many stories are meant to exist without being anchored to a precise place or date.
On the other end of the spectrum is Skeleton Crew, the third in playwright Dominique Morisseau’s three-play cycle exploring her hometown of Detroit. In recent American history, there are only a handful of settings that come as thick with context as the Detroit of 2008, and Morisseau takes things a step further by focusing her story on a small automobile manufacturing plant.
The danger in using a setting this loaded is the same issue with any story that has an element of familiarity: audiences can get lazy, relying on their knowledge and preconceived notions to fill in the gaps instead of engaging fully with what’s happening on stage. But Morisseau avoids that trap by focusing Skeleton Crew on the relationships we build in our work lives and the complications that arise when loyalties are tested, as opposed to the larger context of the auto industry or the Great Recession. The narrative is about the strain created when the realities of life outside work intersect with who and what we prioritize at our jobs, and the themes that come into play are ones even people who’ve never set foot in a manufacturing plant – or in Detroit – can relate to.
The scale of the production is part of what makes it broadly accessible. We’re only dealing with four characters: Faye (Caroline Clay), a longtime factory worker who is near retirement; Dez (Jason Bowen), who clashes with management and is just waiting until he has enough money to start his own shop; Shanita (Shannon Dorsey), a young pregnant woman who loves the work she does in the factory and sees it as continuing her father’s legacy; and Reggie (Tyee Tilghman), the foreman caught between the workers, the owners, and his own responsibilities as a spouse and father. As the play opens, rumors that the factory is closing gain credibility, and the characters consider the implications of the rumors and what a factory closure could mean for them and their relationships.
Although a couple of particularly charged moments get away from them a bit, on the whole the cast is strong – Clay is the standout – and the group has great chemistry together. Most notably, they’re each able to nimbly inhabit the most artful aspect of Morisseau’s writing: the flow of conversation and the way the tone shifts from frustration to humor to pain and back again. Both the dialogue and the delivery feel real for the most part, which is another important piece of why Skeleton Crew is relatable.
Also essential to the authenticity is the staging. Granted, the Mead Theatre is already just about the perfect size for the level of intimacy you want in show of this scale, but the set design plays a key role in establishing the boundaries of the relationships between the characters. This break room feels like people have invested exactly the amount of time you would invest in a place that exists in limbo between a personal space and a job site. It’s exactly comfortable enough and tidy enough. No more, no less.
Skeleton Crew is so focused on the lives and relationships of its characters that eventually it becomes easy to forget those characters were specifically written as representative of people from a place we heard about on the news for months and years during and following the Great Recession. That’s not a bad thing at all, but in this case, it might be an ironic one: in so successfully personalizing a phenomenon that for many of us can often still feel too enormous to connect with in any intimate way, Dominique Morisseau took a story that felt utterly of Detroit in 2008, and made it feel like it could happen in workplaces and on job sites across the country in any year or era.