CHESTER — Credit Dominique Morisseau with putting a human face on economic hardship in America.
The third play in her Detroit Trilogy, "Skeleton Crew" — which is being given a smoothly crafted, persuasively acted production at Chester Theatre Company — unfolds in the break room of an automobile stamping plant in Detroit that is rumored to be on the chopping block.
Morisseau zeroes in on four black workers whose lives already are on an edge if, for no other reason, than because of race and ethnicity.
Faye (Ami Brabson in a skillfully shaded, richly nuanced portrayal), a woman in her mid-50s for whom the break room holds special urgency, is caught between, on the one hand, advocating for the workers she represents and, on the other, a maternal relationship with an upwardly mobile plant supervisor named Reggie (Daniel Morgan Shelley), who is in his mid-30s and only just stepping onto the playing field that is the American Dream: A family, a newly purchased house and a job that catches him between the expectations of his white bosses and his compassion for the people he supervises, especially Faye, to whom he owes a great deal..
Also in the mix are the engaging Dez (Christian Henley), whose carefree, flirtatious, hustling ways belies a man who is a dedicated, valuable worker; and Shanita (Margaret Odette), young, pregnant, unmarried.
They have their dreams. Dez wants to open his own garage. "All I gotta do is save enough money to buy it outright. Few more months of overtime, I'm in there," he says. Shanita wants to prove she is "irreplaceable," she says. "I'm talking work efficiency and ethic," she tells a cynical Faye. "I don't complain. I got the least write-ups. Do a lotta overtime."
Faye, Dez, Shanita and Reggie are a kind of loosely connected family, although the bond between Reggie and Faye, who is estranged from her own son, runs deepest and over a long period of time.
Without melodrama or histrionics, there is dysfunction here — rule-breaking; assertions of the independent spirit; suspicion; mistrust; trust; risk; secrets, some of which are kept secret through the resolution of her play.
It doesn't help that the plant is being hit by a series of burglaries and there is the suggestion that one of the break room crew may be responsible.
Played within the framework of the Great Recession of 2008, "Skeleton Crew" tries to strike, in its narrative, a balance between the personal and the broader social-political-economic waves that are bearing down on the plant and its workers like an inescapable tsunami. You can catch echoes of Odets, Kingsley, other voices from the political movement that caught American theater in the late '20s and much of the '30s.
Morisseau's concerns have to do with how one develops survival strategies in an environment that is either indifferent or downright hostile; allegiances to ourselves and those we love; what it means to have dreams and what it takes to make those dreams become reality; what it takes to, indeed, become irreplaceable.
Whatever shadows dog her characters — Dez carries a gun in his pack; Shanita refuses to talk about the father of her child; Faye has secrets of her own which only Reggie has the ability to expose — Morisseau paints them with compassion and understanding. So do director Awoye Timpo and her cast.
Odette's Shanita is an appealing blend of ingenuousness, sincerity, conviction and streetsmarts. Henley catches the intriguing, often appealing, mix of temperaments within Dez, a young man who, especially as played by Henley, defies simplistic characterization and assumption.
Shelley's Reggie is direct and honest; open in his expressions of the choices he faces.
As Faye, Brabson takes full advantage of the opportunities Morisseau provides. Her Faye is cynical, pragmatic, secretive, loyal, deeply flawed. She walks a tightrope with full awareness of the consequences should she fall off. She has a lot in common with the other members of this "skeleton crew" who each ask no more from the American Dream than to make good on its promise.
Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212