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In playwright Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, now onstage at Bristol Riverside Theatre, the first, and only, thing we see is the break room. Designed here by Britton Mauk, the room has long served its purpose: the lockers are rusting, the halogen lights flicker overhead, and the decades-old couch has certainly seen better days. Throughout the play this space becomes sanctuary, home, war room, and battleground.
It is 2008, the dawn of the great recession, at an auto plant just outside Detroit. Factories are shutting down and downsizing all over Michigan.
As the play begins, Faye (brilliantly embodied here by Lisa Strum) walks on stage, takes a look at the “no smoking” sign affixed to the employee bulletin board, and lights up. After working almost every job at the factory for the last 29 years, she knows she has earned this small dignity. This break room is her domain. With just months until her 30-year benefits kick in, she is looking forward to the best days of her life.
Alongside her is the pregnant and hard-working Shanita (performed with warmth, wit, and charm by Joell Weil). Shanita sees romance in her work. She loves the purpose the assembly line gives her, the durability of the product she helps create, and the “music” of the factory at work. She has the attention of the flirtatious and rebellious Dez (Malik Childs), who has dreams of opening up his own auto-repair shop.
While Faye is certainly the matriarch of the break room, her union crew still answers to foreman Reggie (played with a surprising softness by Marquis Wood). When Reggie tells Faye that the plant will be closing before she makes it to 30 years, he pleads that she keep it a secret so he has time to do the right thing.
Breathing in the unexpected
From here, Morisseau’s script lets the tensions and the characters breathe. She expertly manages to subvert our expectations. Some plot points come and go without resolution, while others explode with unexpected impact. While the beginning of the play covers well-trodden ground, it quickly develops into exciting and unexpected territory.
Cameron Knight’s skillful direction completely renders the world of Skeleton Crew. While most of the acting is top-notch, the actors shine brightest as an ensemble: the relationships on stage feel as lived-in as the break room itself. Strum delivers a knockout performance as Faye, portraying a character at once tough as nails and deeply vulnerable. Weil and Childs exude chemistry and pathos in their roles. Wood feels slightly miscast as Reggie, choosing to play up a sensitivity that seems mismatched for the nuanced combativeness of the role.
The precarity that drives the play doesn’t dissipate; it is only heightened. But I finished the show thankful that I got to spend an evening in this break room, with this family.
What, When, Where
Skeleton Crew. By Dominque Morisseau, directed by Cameron Knight. $10-$50. Through November 21, 2021 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. (215) 785-0100 or brtstage.org.
All BRT audiences are required to show proof of full Covid-19 vaccination with ID, and wear masks inside the building. On Sunday, November 20 at 2pm, patrons unable to receive a vaccine are welcomed with proof of a negative Covid test taken within 48 hours of the performance start time.
Bristol Riverside Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There is a ramp entrance on the left side of the theater. If you need wheelchair seating, please call the box office when making your reservation.
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