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At Trinity – ‘Skeleton Crew’ takes hard look at world of work

Review by Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

Skeleton Crew is a recent new play that unblinkingly focuses on what work means today.

Beginning September 28 and running through November 26, it is alternating on stage at Trinity Rep with the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Both shows are performed in the Sarah and Joseph Dowling, Jr. Theater, downstairs at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington St., Providence. Trinity has paired the plays for their contrasting perspective on the role work plays in American culture and for the meaning it gives and takes away from individual lives.

Written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Tiffany Nichole Green, Skeleton Crew is set in a small stamping plant that manufactures components for the auto industry. The workforce has already been greatly reduced by the 2008 recession, and rumors abound that the factory will close entirely.

Everything happens in the break room of the factory, with the actual labor represented by a choreographed pantomime of the repetitive motion of producing the auto body parts.

There are only four characters, which reinforces the feeling of a bare bones crew. It is probably inaccurate to call any of them the lead actor. Everyone plays a large part in the story. However, Faye is the central figure for much of the play.

Nearing her 30th year on the job, she is close to retirement age. Canny and tough, she is experienced in work, and even more importantly in the realities of life. She is the union steward representing the workers in disputes and negotiations with management. This means she has extensive interaction with the supervisor, Reggie. He happens to be the son of her dear friend, a fact that gives her more leverage but clouds the picture when conflicts arise.

The other two characters are Dez and Shanita. He is a street-wise, outwardly hard-boiled smart-mouth who challenges authority. He is also an indispensable worker who hides a compassionate soul. Shanita is a single mother-to-be, who is razor sharp and intelligent and preparing to be the best parent ever. They are attracted to each other, but she keeps him at a distance.

We soon learn that the rumors are true. The plant will close. At issue is the impact this will have on these four people. Faye is the character that viewers of both plays will compare with Willy Loman. Like him, her work has been the over-riding factor of her daily existence, but unlike him she is under no illusions about it. For him it is what defines him as a person, a monster he must feed, its hunger something he can’t satisfy. His self-image is brittle as an egg shell.

For her, work is the means to subsist. She sees it for what it is. “You work, you sweat, you die,” she says. Yet, she has pride in her worldly-wise ability to endure. “I don’t abide by no rules but necessity,” she snarls. Living by her wits, she sacrifices much to survive, but her pride is in bending, not breaking.

Estranged from her son because she has come out as a lesbian, having no place to live because she gambles, battling with Reggie to have him stand up for the workers instead of yielding to the management, punishing her body by smoking incessantly (and breaking company rules to do it), like Dez she chafes at authority but makes her peace with it by challenging it from within. Always her goal is to live to fight another day. She is a survivor.

Dez is a rebel, who gives his labor to the job but nothing of himself. He dreams of owning his own business, and is taking steps to make it happen. Shanita is highly skilled and self-aware. She wants to excel, but she doesn’t want to compromise. Both of them are loyal to their own aspirations. They each sense the fact that work is not their life. Their lives are their work. The dissension and conflict brought on by the plant closing brings them together, and they realize their love for each other.

Reggie must come to terms with his humanity when it clashes with his responsibilities as a manager, and when the chips are down, with Faye’s encouragement, he does.

The outcome isn’t happy, but we come away believing that what we witness is the closing of a chapter, not the end of their stories. This is even true for Faye who makes the decision to retire early and give Reggie the chance to keep his job a little longer since the management wants her gone.

There is much to ponder in the substance of this satisfying play. It is well-written with many lines that approach a kind of blue collar dialect poetry, some in the argot of the street corner, some in the introspective nuanced voice of the playwright.

Will Adams, a second year student in the Brown/Trinity Rep acting program plays Dez with great stage presence. From the smallest role in Death of a Salesman, he steps into this major part and owns it. Impressive.

Shenyse LeAnna Harris, a third year student in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA acting program, is Shanita. Her performance is remarkable.

Company member Jude Sandy has the part of Reggie. He displays a sure-handed ability to handle the extremes of emotion and restraint the role demands. His work is superb.

Lizan Mitchell is Faye. A veteran actress with extensive credits ranging from Broadway to film and TV, she is wonderful as the hard-edged, world-weary, yet indomitable battler. You look forward to her every moment center stage.