Chicago Theater Review: SKELETON CREW (Northlight)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 3, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


Some stories can’t stand on their own and for very good reason: They tell so many others. Much as The Wire dealt with Baltimore’s failing institutions and August Wilson chronicled the decades washing over Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit Trilogy” pays tribute to the builders of a broken burg.

In Chicago, TimeLine Theatre produced Paradise Blue last year, a drama about jazz musicians not always finding the right rhythms or a saving harmony. Several seasons ago, Northlight Theatre premiered Morisseau’s first installment, Detroit ’67. Now Northlight has turned, triumphantly, to the Chicago premiere of the final offering: Skeleton Crew is a valedictory to lost industry. Set during the recession of 2008, this two-act drama speaks truth about a lot of dead ends, human and economic, as a once-mighty metropolis skids into the hardest times since the Depression.

As the title suggests, Skeleton Crew focuses on diminished returns, a downsized band of overworked workers at one of the Motor City’s last auto plants. With rumors of closure unsettling everything, these four laborers — three union and one company — are letting go and looking ahead (if not forward). Just as an imminent execution “concentrates the mind,” the end of an era is stamped into the skin of four seminal survivors, each achingly human in Ron OJ Parson’s driving 140-minute local premiere.

Clocking in and cramming their street clothes into lockers in the battered break room, one weary morning after another, are four believable dreamers and doers. For them an economic crisis — 28% unemployment rate — is as personal as chest pain: Inevitably, their interactions testify to the camaraderie and tested loyalties they hold for each other and their jobs.

The first of these hourly-wage slaves is Faye Davidson (Jaqueline Williams), a long-time worker and union rep at the stamping plant. Defiantly smoking, this lesbian iconoclast keeps her own rules, hoping she’s “irreplaceable” even as she’s challenged to pay the rent and feed her kid. Her opposite in this workplace is Reggie (Kelvin Roston Jr.), the son of Faye’s former lover and a surrogate one for Faye. A supervising foreman to Faye’s shop steward, Reggie is caught in the middle, his devotion to these doomed workers constantly menaced by cutbacks and the need to root out in-house theft and other infractions. Unfairly, because of Faye’s maternal indulgence of Reggie, she’s suspected of being a spy for management.

In between are the young workers: Pregnant and alienated from her baby’s daddy, Shanita (AnJi White) takes peculiar pride in her work, believing she’s making a difference in the stuff she manufactures. (Only reluctantly does she contemplate a future managing a copying firm.) Caught between the dreams she regularly recounts and the precautions she takes to protect her unborn child, Shanita is increasingly drawn to the fecklessly rebellious Dez (Bernard Gilbert). Happy to just not be robbed outside work, this gun-carrying gambler and testy assembly line worker dreams of opening his old auto parts shop. (When he’s not getting into self-sabotaging trouble, the master mechanic is good at keeping the line fully functioning.)

Reggie must contend with the bosses’ bottom-line, cost-saving plans to eliminate redundant staff before closing the factory altogether: That puts him on a collision course with the sometimes-obstreperous Faye and the friction-feeding Dez. By play’s end turf-war clashes become defining conflicts. They turn shop-room gossip and on-the-job misunderstandings into raw occupational hazards.

As if to put their plights in perspective, high above set designer Scott Davis’s shopworn break room run dimly lit conveyor belts with traction pulleys suggesting the insatiable blast furnaces and assembly lines. Beneath this mindless machinery, Parson’s four actors seem both noble and vulnerable, as authentic as any of Wilson’s troubled talkers, though more realistic and less symbolic in dialogue and direction.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist and one of Time Magazine’s top ten plays of 2017, Skeleton Crew works as a swan song for America’s threatened unions. It’s equally a salute to the resilience and solidarity of four unhyped, bedrock-decent stayers and fighters. By depicting a very different world from its audiences’ experiences, Northlight Theatre respects their worth as much as it honors the tough love of Morisseau’s makeshift family.

photos by Charles Osgood

Skeleton Crew
Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts
9501 N. Skokie Blvd in Skokie
Tues – Thurs at 7:30; Wed at 1; Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2:30 (& 7 on 2/25)
ends on March 3, 2018
for tickets call 847.673.6300 or visit Northlight.

 for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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