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Dobama's 'Skeleton Crew' Captures the Hope and Dread of Workers Striving for Precarious Economic Security 

click to enlarge Mary-Francis Miller, left, Ananias J. Dixon and Robert Hunter star in Skeleton Crew.

Photo by Steven Wagner Photography

Mary-Francis Miller, left, Ananias J. Dixon and Robert Hunter star in Skeleton Crew.

All of us say we hate working, until we can't get a job. And when you're a low-wage grunt who is easily replaceable, you're often working on the ragged edge of financial disaster — one paycheck away from living on the street, in mom's basement, or in the backseat of your Chevy Cavalier.

In one way or another, all four workers in Skeleton Crew have pitched their flimsy tents on that uncertain edge, and their struggle to stay there makes this play by Dominique Morisseau absorbing, amusing, and heartfelt in the best way possible. Under the direction of Nina Domingue, the talented cast creates characters that pulse with hope and a constant sense of quiet dread that seems to pervade life in the 21st century.

Set in a Detroit automobile stamping plant's break room in 2008 — the year of the Great Financial Meltdown — the three blue-collar production line workers (Faye, Shanita and Dez) and their white-collar supervisor Reggie are all African-Americans in search of a small patch of security and a sliver of personal empowerment. But there are rumors the plant will be closing soon, putting them all, you guessed it, on edge.

Given that setup, it might be easy to assume that these under-threat workers will be predictable avatars staking out familiar positions. And they are, to a point. But playwright Morisseau has the soul of a poet and although there are some pivotal plot points, including a series of thefts from the plant, her focus is on character. She creates distinctive speech patterns for each of her characters, words that blossom and surprise amidst the street-tough jabs that make up much of their conversation.

Faye, a 29-year veteran of the line, is trying to hang on until she hits the 30-year mark because her benefits will increase at that milestone. Still, she has the "up yours" mentality of a longtime employee, flouting the no-smoking signs by lighting up whenever she chooses. But her status in the break room is compromised when Reggie shares information about the fate of the plant and asks her to not tell anyone. She reluctantly agrees, succumbing to the pleas of this man whose mother, now deceased, was Faye's former lover.

Lisa Louise Langford embodies Faye in full, snapping off volleys of pithy putdowns that fairly crackle with the weight of this woman's worldly experience. And when we learn about her very personal quotidian challenges, including a gambling problem that caused a severe downgrade in her living conditions, we see how her snarky attitude has been shaped. She's employed now, on this day. But as she says, "Any moment any one of us could be the other. That's just the shit about life."

As Reggie, the former line worker who is now part of the plant administration, Ananias J. Dixon captures the uneasiness of a man with feet in two different worlds. While he wants to relate to his workers as a peer and pal, his role as supervisor and his concern for providing for his family keep him off balance. Indeed, every time he enters scenic designer Aaron Benson's wonderfully grimy break room, it feels as if he's sneaking into enemy territory, unsure of his safe return.

In the second act, Reggie reveals a confrontation he had with his superior and it is a virtuoso performance, featuring a verbal jazz riff that expresses snatches of this conflicted man's personality: his fears, hopes, self-deprecating humor, and an abiding sense of absurdity. It is a penetrating mirror into one man's desperation, a mirror that is all the more compelling since Dixon uses his character's vulnerability to invite us in instead of holding us at arm's length.

Shanita, not yet 30, is visibly pregnant and proud of her demonstrated skills on the line. But as much as she wants to focus on her job, the presence of equally young Dez keeps her mind drifting elsewhere. Mary-Francis Miller makes Shanita believable down to her core, especially when she rhapsodizes about the thrum the machines make as they whir and throb on the other side of the break room walls. This is music to her ears because it represents a job, a paycheck.

For his part, twenty-something Dez is both dangerous (he's packing a gun) and thoughtful, sharing dreams of starting his own shop while railing at Reggie and the powers that be for their indifference. Robert Hunter exudes a sly sensual tension in his moments alone with Shanita, insinuating himself into her physical space with a mixture of playfulness and clear-eyed intention. At one point when he sinuously eases himself over the back of the break room sofa to lie down, it feels like the promising beginning of a new Kama Sutra position.

Director Domingue is a perfect match for this material, employing her effusive energy and proven storytelling skills to create a powerful ensemble performance while attending to the larger themes. To wit: We are all like Shanita, in a way, relying on the steady "background music" of our lives to provide a sense of stability. And when we sense that music is about to waver, or stop completely, it is terrifying. That is why we go on, because there is no other way to keep the music playing.

Christine Howey, a former stage actor and director, is executive director of Literary Cleveland.

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