Working-class blues

People's Light presents Dominique Morisseau's 'Skeleton Crew'

3 minute read
Brian Marable and Melanye Finister make a questionable decision about some heavy news in 'Skeleton Crew.'  (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
Brian Marable and Melanye Finister make a questionable decision about some heavy news in 'Skeleton Crew.' (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

Let's hope People's Light & Theatre Company's excellent production of Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew isn't overlooked. So late in the season, local theater turns to outdoor Shakespeare and light comedies. This shatteringly realistic workplace drama not only examines post-recession downsizing and modern labor relations but is a well-crafted and incisive family play.

Morisseau’s (Detroit '67, TV's Shameless) characters work in a Detroit auto-parts factory. Faye (Melanye Finister) is her crew's union rep and mother figure. Both Dez (Joshua E. Nelson) and manager Reggie (Brian Marable) are like sons — stand-ins for Faye’s sad family history — and she also nurtures pregnant Shanita (Patrese D. McClain). "I am your elder up in here," she reminds her squabbling charges.

Breakroom breakdown

The entire play occurs on Tony Cisek's realistic factory breakroom set, with worn couch, mismatched chairs, and dented lockers. The set also becomes a screen for Jeromy Hopgood's between-scene projections of robotized manufacturing and Detroit's mean streets. Kathy Perkins's lighting captures workplace fluorescent bleakness, and Marla Jurglanis's costumes look appropriately lived in.

Skeleton Crew starts at a critical time, when the plant’s already depleted labor force is about to be fired and their factory closed. Reggie confides in Faye, but they decide not to tell the others — though everyone needs to plan for the future.

Secrets abound, both professional and personal. Why does Faye start coming in earlier than the others? What's up with Shanita's baby's father? Why does Reggie rely so much on Faye? Is that a gun in Dez's locker?

Their problems are real and frightening for anyone in America's shrinking middle class. Faye's toiled 29 years, and management wants her to retire before her 30th year brings more benefits. Reggie will lose his young family's house without his salary. Dez seems a step away from violent street life, buoyed only by his full-time job.

Shanita has a copy-center position lined up but loves her work. "I feel like I'm building something important," she shares. "My touch, my special care, it matter."

Personal and professional

Morisseau blends work and life to a crescendo perfectly orchestrated by director Steve H. Broadnax III (People's Light’s The Mountaintop). All four characters reveal a passion for their work, a pride in its usefulness that feels nostalgic today, and the valid modern conviction that their bosses will discard them for robots and cheap foreign labor.

Beyond this, though, they're a tight ensemble. Vividly creating long-lasting, believable relationships, they expertly balance the play's rich personal humor with its larger themes.

Finister, a longtime People's Light company member, has been overdue for such a commanding role. She’s magnetic as complicated, multilayered Faye, whose failings strike a shaky balance with her battle-tested values.

McClain builds on her Barrymore Award-winning performance in The Mountaintop with an often humorous yet entirely genuine portrayal of a stubborn dreamer. Nelson's Dez shows surprising depth, and Marable's downtrodden Reggie is a masterful study of middle-class struggle.

Together, they illustrate why Skeleton Crew is one of American theater's most produced plays — and why People's Light commissioned Morisseau's latest play, Mud Row, for next season. Don't let summer daze blind you to Skeleton Crew's powerful fireworks.

What, When, Where

Skeleton Crew. By Dominique Morisseau, Steve H. Broadnax III directed. Through July 15, 2018, at the People's Light & Theatre Company's Steinbright Stage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, Pennsylvania. (610) 644-3500 or

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