Candice D’Meza as Shanita, David Rainey as Reggie, Brandon J. Morgan as Dez, and Lizan Mitchell as Faye in the Alley Theatre’s production of Skeleton Crew, by Dominique Morissea.

Image: Lynn Lane

Set in Detroit around 2008, Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew takes place in the break room of an auto manufacturing company, where the workers' personal relationships intensify as they face imminent layoffs.

The sounds of this small plant are industrial, yet somehow haunting. Motown songs stitch together scenes where Kevin Rigdon’s stage design proves a model of industrial verisimilitude, including shabby gray lockers that hold personal effects and employee secrets, and lunch tables that double as card tables for workers to gamble on break. Yet the bigger wager here involves the lives of loyal employees whose futures are at the mercy of a dwindling industry. It’s both a moving and frustrating experience to watch the personal and economic pressures the four characters face in this fine ensemble of worthy performances.

Faye, played by Lizan Mitchell, has worked for the company for 29 years and suffered a lot of personal hardships exacerbated by the cold winter, cancer recovery, and the specter of job loss before hitting 30 years (and full retirement benefits). Morisseau is careful to reveal that while leaders in this company might have personal moments of compassion and humanity, the corporation in general is an amoral and inhuman machine, capable of grinding down even the most loyal workers to stay competitive. Faye has problems doled out by a heartless world, but she also acknowledges that some of them, such as her insistence on smoking and gambling, are her own choices. She wants to fulfill some kind of American ideal of complete self-reliance, but her will to survive is complicated by her illness, isolation, and her own (understandable) pride. 

Faye is closest to Reggie (David Rainey), a high school dropout who has been promoted through the ranks and now supervises the four workers in the play, including Faye, who secured Reggie a job in the industry. Reggie’s problems are the crux of what this play asks of everyone: How does one “fight” for what is morally or ethically right without self-sabotage? It’s a tricky, if not impossible tightrope, and part this play's power is feeling the pressure felt by each character, albeit in different ways.

Candice D’Meza plays Shanita, a younger, unwed mother-to-be who has pride in her job and explains that “you’ve got to make yourself irreplaceable.” She invokes ambivalence toward Dez (Brandon J. Morgan), sometimes making jokes about his overtures as examples of “sex harassment” before engaging in romantic moments as their employment status becomes increasingly dire.

Each performance requires much of the actors, but for me, Morgan as Dez really carries this show. From his comedic moments dancing in front of his locker, to his believable dialogue with the other characters, to his snappy comebacks, he is a model of impeccable timing. His performance is neither understated nor over-the-top, but successful in that you feel like you might be watching a real worker in an engaging and revealing documentary. And isn’t that what gritty realism wants to achieve? I was mesmerized by his performance and felt empathy for his motivations even when I did not agree with his character’s decisions. 

Brandon J. Morgan as Dez proves this play's breakout star.

Image: Lynn Lane

Dez is also the most relatable character in the play. He wants to know what is going on with the plant, and so do we. He doesn’t have long preachy monologues about survival that wear us down; rather, he has a Plan B. While Faye boldly claims, “I don’t abide by no rules but necessity,” Dez’s decisions are more in sync with survival in a brutal world than his own impossible standards. 

Another strength of this play is how it dramatizes the way our work lives spill into other aspects of our lives: health, sexuality, morality, politics. One’s role as a foreman or union leader or loyal worker is not everything a person represents. But when the stakes get high and the pressure is on, those more personal and human aspects of our lives are thrust into relief, and our professional selves become our primary frame of reference—often with devastating and tragic consequences.

One of my few quibbles with this play is that so many moments are so highly charged, that many scenes are entirely composed of yelling, creating a situation where something extremely pivotal in terms of plot or personal revelation becomes minimized by sheer default. Not every intense moment requires screaming to get the point across.

That said, this elegiac homage to the once powerful automotive industry from The Alley offers an intense look into the personal and economic pressures of plant workers. I won’t spoil the end, but there is a bittersweet act of poetic justice that prevents the play from ending on a completely negative note. Morisseau still leaves no doubt that this is a world that's dwindled so dramatically that it is only a matter of time that such a way of life slips into the bins of history. When Shanika says, “I’m gonna ride until the wheels fall off,” the saddest thing is knowing that they will.

Thru Oct 7. Tickets from $45. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheare.org.

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