Even with the seesawing stock market, the economy today is so far ahead of where it was just a decade ago that some folks may have forgotten the hard thump that signaled the start of the Great Recession.
For a bracing reminder, check out “Skeleton Crew,” the tough and humane play by Dominique Morisseau receiving a first-rate production from Baltimore Center Stage.
The piece, set in the playwright’s native Detroit around 2008, focuses on auto workers trying to hang on at a stamping plant where rumors about imminent closure flow to the same steady beat as the parts of cars rolling down the assembly line.
As with “Detroit ’67,” Morisseau’s searing look at racial tension (Center Stage did that work proud a few seasons ago), there’s terrific specificity as well as universality in “Skeleton Crew.” The play applies to any place, really, where jobs are never totally secure. And to any city where crime has everyone on edge and keeps holding back progress and purpose and hope.
But for all of the bleak issues raised, “Skeleton Crew” is no polemical piece, hammering its points. This is really a family drama, in the sense that the characters — three workers and their supervisor — have developed bonds that go deep, deeper than they realize. What they face, and how they face it, makes for potent theater.
There is something tender and beautiful beneath the hard surfaces that each of those characters has developed, and that’s what emerges through Morisseau’s astute writing, her fine sense of timing and structure.
The Center Stage production, expertly guided by director Nicole A. Watson and given a spot-on set by Mariana Sanchez, gets to the play’s heart.
In the central, matriarchal role of Faye, a woman with more challenges than she lets on at first, Stephanie Berry delivers a commanding performance. She lets you feel the mix of pride and anger fueling Faye, and the compassion, too.
Berry hits a particularly poignant note when, as more truths come out into the open, Faye says, “Any moment any one of us could be the other ... One minute you passin’ the woman on the freeway holdin’ up the ‘Will work for food’ sign. Next minute, you sleepin’ in your car.”
Brittany Bellizeare does vibrant work as Shanita, a young, pregnant worker who hears music in the rhythm of the factory and takes pride in what she does. As the cocky Dez, a man with ambitions and secrets, Gabriel Lawrence offers a vivid, telling portrayal.
Then there’s Reggie, who beat the odds by rising to supervisor, but now struggles with his conscience. “I’m supposed to pretend like you ain’t more than an employee ID number,” he says. Sekou Laidlow gives this conflicted character considerable depth and affecting nuance.