Friday, May 17, 2024

"Skeleton Crew" at the Guthrie Theater

Just before the pandemic, Yellow Tree Theatre partnered with New Dawn Theatre to produce the regional premiere of Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew, the final installment in her trilogy of plays known as The Detriot Project (which includes Detroit '67, produced by Penumbra in 2015). Since then, the play premiered on Broadway, receiving three Tony nominations and one win (for Phylicia Rashad). Now it's back in the Twin Cities, on the Guthrie's proscenium stage, with the same director as the Yellow Tree/New Dawn production (Austene Van, founding Artistic Director of New Dawn, who has since become the Artistic Director of Yellow Tree), as well as some of the same cast and design team. It's basically the 2020 production on a bigger stage and with a bigger scale. And this is a play deserving of a second look, and of a wider audience, as it tells a very human and relatable story of blue collar workers struggling to stay afloat during the recession of the late aughts. See this powerful and moving play, that's also funny and entertaining, now through June 9.

The story takes place in 2008 during the decline of Detroit's auto industry, with many factories and plants laying people off or closing altogether. The complex, real, and very human characters through which we experience this crisis are co-workers at an auto stamping plant that's in danger of closing. Faye is the veteran, approaching her 30th anniversary, having started at the plant when she was a young pregnant single mother. She acts as a mother hen to Shanita, also a young pregnant single mother, and the flirtatious and fun-loving Dez. Faye is also a sort of surrogate mother to supervisor Reggie, who lost his own mother, Faye's girlfriend. When Reggie learns of the plant closing, he isn't supposed to tell the workers but confides in Faye, and of course the others find out about it. The impending unemployment is a threat to everyone in the group: Reggie just bought a house for his family, Dez is working to save up enough money to open his own garage, Shanita is a talented worker who was looking forward to a long and successful career in the industry, and Faye is being forced into an early retirement she can't afford. There's nothing they can do to stop the plant closing, but they try to take care of themselves and each other in any way they can.*

Jennifer Fouché, Darius Dotch, Stephanie Everett, and Mikell Sapp
(photo by Dan Norman)
Once again Austene Van directs this play with sharpness, clarity, and emotional truth, and this tight four-person ensemble brings depth and humanity to their characters. #TCTheater actors Darius Dotch and Mikell Sapp reprise their roles from the 2020 production. Unfortunately Mikell was out the night I saw the show, but fortunately understudy Domino D'Lorion is fantastic and fits right in, with a funny, spirited, and layered performance as Dez. In 2020 I wrote that Darius "brings out all of the tortured humanity of Reggie, torn between his responsibilities at the plant, a job he needs to take care of his family, and his friendship with his employees," and he gives an even deeper and richer performance four years later. Joining the cast for this production are NYC-based actors Stephanie Everett, a likable and relatable Shanita, and Jennifer Fouché, an absolute powerhouse as Faye, saying as much with a grunt or an "mm-hmm" as she does with Morrisseau's gorgeous dialogue.

Jennifer Fouché and Darius Dotch (photo by Dan Norman)
Austene brought her costume designer and sound designer from the 2020 production along for this show. Samantha Fromm Haddow clothes the characters in an array of casual working wear specific to each personality - jeans, t-shirts, and sweatshirts for the workers, neat button-ups, slacks, and vests for Reggie. Sound designer/composer Jeff Lowe Bailey's work is critical for this work that specifies the use of the Detroit sound, heard during the scene transitions that often include silhouettes of the actors performing sharp and robotic dance movements that evoke factory work (movement designed by Austene). All of this takes place on Regina Garcia's realistic break room set, with several cozy sitting areas, a kitchen, and lockers, with patchwork windows adding brightness.

Skeleton Crew is a beautifully written play about relevant issues, and this fantastic cast pours their hearts into these characters, with a design that makes it feel like we're there in the factory break room with them while they have these deep and life-changing conversations.

*Plot summary borrowed from my review of the 2020 Yellow Tree Theatre / New Dawn Theatre production.