‘Skeleton Crew’ shows life on the (auto) line in decline. Now on stage at People’s Light

Melanye Finister, Patrese D. McClain, Brian Marable, and Joshua E. Nelson in a scene from “Skeleton Crew.”
Melanye Finister, Patrese D. McClain, Brian Marable, and Joshua E. Nelson in a scene from “Skeleton Crew.” PHOTO BY MARK GARVIN
Patrese D. McClain and Joshua E. Nelson appear in “Skeleton Crew.”
Patrese D. McClain and Joshua E. Nelson appear in “Skeleton Crew.” PHOTO BY MARK GARVIN

IF YOU GO

“Skeleton Crew” is on the Steinbright Stage at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern through July 15. For tickets call (610) 644-3500 or go to www.peopleslight.org

Exploring the ruins of Detroit’s once-mighty Packard Motors plant, author and Detroit native Mark Binnelli encountered a group of German students. Why were they there? “I came to see the end of the world,” one of them cheerfully replied.

Once the economic wonder of the world, now often seen as a “ruin tourism” destination, cautionary tale, economic recovery case study and visionary farm/garden and e-commerce metropolis of the future, Detroit has become a repository for a myriad of plans and fragile hopes. Many Detroit residents have already seen the end of their world and are busy making a new one.

But for the remaining union auto workers of the Motor City it’s too late to become high-tech urban farmers. Their lives, dreams and expectations are, as with many of us, still embedded in work which is becoming automated, digitized, marginalized and downsized. These are the men and women Dominique Morisseau chose as her protagonists in “Skeleton Crew,” the third play in her Detroit Trilogy about her hometown, currently in production at People’s Light in Malvern.

It’s the recession of 2008 and things are tough at one of the few remaining auto parts factories in Detroit that supplies the major auto manufacturers. In this context a “skeleton crew” is no computer-generated thrill ride but the smallest number of workers necessary to keep a plant running.

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Because African American workers made up about 14 percent of the U.S. auto work force in 2008, they were hit particularly hard by the recession. In previous decades the auto industry was a mainstay for black workers as one of the few manufacturers hiring and offering above-average pay and opportunity since World War II.

In Skeleton Crew the workers on the line (in every sense) are the cynical, relentlessly practical lesbian Faye (Melanye Finister), the bright, wary but ambitious (and very pregnant) Shanita (Patrese D. McClain) and the hard-working but rebellious Dez (Joshua E. Nelson). They’re expected by the plant managers to keep their sheet metal stamping plant running as long as possible before new owners or creditors take over. But the promised severance pay and job retraining services are as likely to vanish as neighborhoods are consumed by arsonist’s flames during Detroit’s annual Devil’s Night.

Each of the characters hold their personal ambitions as a shield against the struggle to come when their (relatively) well-paid union jobs end and they are forced to test those ambitions against reality.

All the play’s action takes place in a chilly break room where the workers and their hard-pressed and frustrated manager Reggie(Brian Marable) strategize and talk about escape from the production line and the unemployment line.

Reggie’s old ties to Faye’s family lead him to rashly reveal to her the planned closing of the plant — not one of the persistent rumors but real this time — and the union representative Faye ducks responsibility for fighting the closing in hopes that Reggie will buy some more time from management. Each of the four have much to lose if the line closes but for Faye and Reggie it could be the end game.

Morisseau’s personal familiarity with Detroit’s people and cultures infuses her characters with a raw reality and immediacy. As she unfolds their backstories and hidden agendas she adds layer after layer of characterizations that are wholly engaging in the hands of this fine cast but eventually wander onto a knife-edge of repetition. Several scenes in Act 2 could be judiciously edited and the play shortened by 20 minutes or so without reducing the impact of the story.

Marable and McLain have performed their roles in “Skeleton Crew” before and each have a fine lived-in familiarity with their roles, which require as many periods of silence and hard searching glances as spoken lines. Nelson manages to combine reckless rebelliousness with quiet competency in a wholly honest way and People’s Light company member Finister as Faye provides the hard but still shifting, not-quite-secure rock for this working team to balance on.

This is the second time Steve Broadnax III has directed the play, which shows in the quick pace of the delivery and smooth transitions between scenes. Tony Cisek’s set is so realistic a break room that one is tempted to jump up and clean out the fridge, check the leftovers for mold and make another pot of coffee during intermission.

Sound designer and composer Curtis Craig and video designer Jeromy Hopgood recreate the feeling of stress and anxiety in and around the plant through a montage of plant and street scenes projected on the walls accompanied by music and the constant roar of the stamping presses.

Those who enjoy this play will be excited to see Morisseau’s new work about Chester County entitled “Mud Row,” which she developed as part of People’s Light New Play Frontiers and will be staged in the 2018-19 season.