‘Skeleton Crew’ packs an anniversary season-opening punch

Play about a closing auto plant feels urgent
‘Skeleton Crew’ packs an anniversary season-opening punch
Photo courtesy of Forward Theater
Marti Gobel (left), Candace Thomas and Sherrick Robinson are riveting and realistic in Forward’s “Skeleton Crew.” 

Marti Gobel very much looks the part of a veteran auto-plant worker in Forward Theater Co.’s 10th anniversary season-opening production of Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew.” From her stooped shoulders and slow-rolling gait to the distant way she drags on the cigarettes she’s not supposed to be smoking in the break room, it’s easy to tell that her character, Faye, is a survivor. And that’s before we learn Faye’s also overcome cancer.

The question is whether she’ll survive what’s about to go down: The auto-stamping plant, where she’s spent the last 29 years — one year short of full retirement bennies, is the latest in a long line to be slated for shutdown. As her good-guy supervisor Reggie (DiMonte Henning) tries to walk the line between doing right by his crew and preserving his own spot in the corporate hierarchy, his dwindling crew, including the swaggering Dez (Sherrick Robinson) and the uber-capable and very pregnant Shanita (Candace Thomas) try to figure out what’s going on and what to do next.

The meat of the plot couldn’t feel more urgent and contemporary. The auto industry in Detroit has been cheating death for the better part of the last decade. And, as director Jake Penner correctly notes, it’s not just auto workers in the economic crosshairs. Morisseau, who’s very much the playwright of the moment, could just as easily have set her play in a modern newsroom or a paper mill. This is the ongoing story of our shifting modern economy, as bottom lines drive the move to globalization and automation.

“I feel like I’m building something important,” says Shanita as she contemplates the cars she helps create — and an unwelcome potential career change. “It comes to life at the end.” She gives voice to a pride in accomplishment that’s very real, very affecting and yet very much like a curio of a dying era.

“Skeleton Crew” shares quite a bit of DNA with “Exit Strategy,” the second play in Forward’s last season (Coincidentally, Gobel directed that one). But while that production leaned heavily on its comic elements, often sacrificing authenticity for goofball laughs, “Skeleton Crew” uses its one-liners as breaks to diffuse very real tension between tightly drawn characters. Thanks to the cast’s taut performances, these feel like real people facing massive choices that will impact their futures. For instance, the budding, prickly romance between Dez and Shanita could have been a distracting subplot. Instead, Robinson and Thomas lend it an honesty that deepens both their characters.

That’s just one example. There’s real anguish as everyone’s making decisions to ensure survival. Faye’s sleeping in the break room. Dez may be the one responsible for all the materials that are suddenly being stolen from the plant lines. There’s a real mistrust and generational sense of betrayal in Reggie and Dez’s power struggle. Gobel’s gritty and nuanced performance is what anchors the show, but her castmates keep up with her every step.

Happily, Morisseau is also careful to balance the stakes. Nobody’s a hero here. Each one of the characters have made (and continue to make) flawed decisions that make life more difficult for themselves. And nobody’s a heartless bastard either. That further convinces us we’re watching the struggles of actual human beings, not dramatic constructs sprung from the playwright’s imagination.

The set does a great job of evoking your typical blue-collar break room, from the teeny lockers to the bulletin board festooned with the requisite patchwork of corporate edicts. (My eyes also kept being drawn to the empty case of Mountain Dew spilling out of an overturned garbage can.)

The only thing that doesn’t quite work here are the puzzling, between-scene projected silhouettes of a trio of dancing women on a set of curtain scrims placed above the set. The connection to the story that’s being told is completely unclear — we’re watching the very real struggles of blue-collar workers here, not the intro to a retro James Bond flick. And while it seems designed to distract the audience from minor set changes, it’s also used erratically. The show could do without it.

You’d expect Forward to lead off its landmark 10th anniversary season with a punch, and that’s exactly what they’ve landed here. This is one of the best shows they’ve staged in the last several years.

“Skeleton Crew” runs in the Overture Center Playhouse through September 23.

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning Madison-area theater coverage for madisonmagazine.com.