Review: 'Skeleton Crew' a quintessential American tale

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DORSET — At Dorset Theatre Festival, artistic director Dina Janis is keeping her promise to continue featuring more new plays, especially those by female playwrights.

Janis is not only making good on that pledge, but the quality of Dorset's productions continues at a high level in its second show of the summer, part of Dominique Morisseau's Detroit Trilogy, "Skeleton Crew," directed by Jade King Carroll.

The play examines the 2008 collapse of the auto industry and its impact on black workers in a way that goes beyond the sound bites and statistics. It chronicles a number of characters as they navigate the auto industry downfall.

Faye (Brenda Pressley) has spent her career at one of Detroit's last auto-stamping plants. Shanita (Mirirai Sithole) is pregnant, Dez (Leland Fowler) has a whole future to plan, and their manager Reggie (Gabriel Lawrence) must balance his debt to his work family with a need to support his family at home.

As rumors of a plant shutdown persist, these workers must decide what they'll sacrifice to survive. The play is set in Morisseau's native Detroit, and has come to be known as a timely and searing portrait of the trials and tribulations experienced by the African-American working class.

Pressley's Faye was almost larger than life, and she worked that particular angle hard, dominating scene after scene with her vigor and a veteran's know-how. At every moment, Pressley roundly convinced us of Faye's well-earned street smarts, and her emotional vulnerability.

Fowler was a perfect Dez, projecting both attitude and promise as he struggled with the inevitability of losing his job, along with the vision to pursue a career where he was his own boss. Dez knew what he wanted but got in his way too much; Fowler masterfully bridged the gap, and then some.

Sithole entered out consciousness and out empathy, not least because she was so convincing as the pregnant Shanita. She matched Dez snap for snap in their back and forth, showing the power of feminine mystique, her edgy dialogue also building a sexual tension well suited to the storyline.

Finally, Lawrence's Reggie struck a delicate balance between having been one of the line workers, and now being a shift supervisor. This is no small device by Morisseau, as Reggie is a critical link between the skeleton crew and the Man. Lawrence superbly delivers the goods in a way that makes us wince by the tug-of-war dilemma he faces every day. Bravo, sir!

The show ran at just over 2 hours, with a 15 minute intermission included. Other than a few line hesitations on preview night, the production was as smooth as the story was wrenching.

Lights by the inimitable Michael Giannitti were on time and target, as was the resonating sound design by Karin Graybash. Joey Moro's projection design, another one of DTF's excellent touches, told a continuous bigger-picture story along the way.

Costumes by Alice Tavener were stylistically matched to the milieu and scenic design by Kristen Robinson very nearly took one's breath away on first sight. The play was capably stage managed by Emely Zepeda.

Social history and human angst, even when contemporary, tend to be complementary bedfellows. No one knows this better than playwright Morisseau, who grew up in Detroit and has seen the drama of the automobile industry unfold before her first hand. It's one of those elements that are as much of the fabric of an urban setting as cheese steak hoagies are to Philadelphia — except far, far more serious.

It's clear, as Janis told me a week before the play opened, that the cast and crew have put their hearts and souls so deeply into this play. And in the midst of all the tension, there is also well crafted and timely humor which gives us the well-deserved chance to take a break.

In short, "Skeleton Crew" is a quintessentially American tale: gray, gritty but also uplifting. Because that's what this country is made of, even in times of dark circumstances. So make the drive to Dorset and take in this play, because its emotional power may indeed surprise you, and it's acting will do nothing but impress.

"Skeleton Crew" by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Jade King-Carroll will run through Aug. 4 at Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Info and tickets: 802-867-2223 ext.101, or dorsettheatrefestival.org

Telly Halkias is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and a longtime regional journalist and drama critic. reach him at tchalkias@aol.com, or on Twitter

@Telly Halkias

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