'Skeleton Crew' Tries to Capture the Corpse of an American Tragedy

There are scenes in Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, currently receiving its Bay Area premiere at the Marin Theatre Company under Jade King Carroll’s assured direction, that belong in a terrific play about Detroit auto workers.

The most striking of these is when Reggie, a foreman proud of his ascension to middle management (another fantastic Lance Gardner performance), becomes so angered and infuriated by his company’s inhumane polices that he can’t remember whether he’s committed an act of violence or not. When it becomes clear that he hasn’t, it's also clear just how much he wishes he had — and how significant the idea is, for him, of lashing out.

For Reggie and the other workers he supervises, the auto plant has become a mystery. It’s 2008. They can feel the precarious nature of the local and national economies. Everyone is in flux, and they’re all navigating an increasingly precarious future.

Faye, a longtime employee, cancer survivor, and union rep, has less than a year to get a full-benefits package; Dez, young, hardworking, and angry, is plotting his way to opening his own garage; and Shanita, incredibly talented and committed to her job, is pregnant and single. Morisseau catches in these characters the way work is intimately connected to the soul, and the natural resting place of dreams. (Or here, fractured dreams.)

What’s fascinating about this up-and-down play is how much more effective it is when Morisseau forgets the bigger themes and sticks with the granular details of life in an auto plant. Reggie and Dez argue about protocol; Dez and Shanita share a particularly tasty dish of potatoes; Faye struggles over when to reveal inside information about the plant closing. Without explanation or adornment, we understand everything.

The problem is that Morriseau doesn’t leave it at that. An audience can sense whole worlds in just a few details, but rather than letting us follow the natural course of everyday life and coming to hard conclusions about the economic and political conditions of America, Morriseau too often indulges in poetic flourishes that strain for significance.

Shanita tells Faye that her Big Mama “used to say dreams from a pregnant woman actually more like prophecies,” and then recounts one that includes an “empty space with nothin’ in it [and] dust covering everything." As she calls out to people who "don't answer," a strong wind comes and the “dust is scrambled in a group of letters that don’t spell nothin’.”

It’s at moments like these (there’s a second act speech about traffic that operates in the same way) that the play loses its bite. Shanita’s speech is an artistic effect, rather than an interrogation of what happens to people under intense economic pressures. It stands apart from the play’s concerns and draws our attention away from the real drama: a war over money, resources, and civic responsibility.

Morisseau knows that there’s a problem in Detroit -- in its auto plants, in the way race informs economic decisions, and in the way corporations pretend that plant closures are abstract rather than human decisions. But she, along with much of the mainstream of American theater, hasn't figured out how to give these insights voice outside of the most limited artistic choices.

There are elements of the crime thriller in Skeleton Crew, but the genre it leans on the most is the workplace sitcom. When the play moves away from direct conflict over economic issues, which is when it is at its best, the action invariably falls back into comic bits: menopause jokes, nicotine patch jokes, baby-naming jokes, boss jokes, sexual harassment jokes.

Humor is crucial to art and social change, but its deployment here dulls our political senses. In the familiar patter and setup of punchlines, we’re caught in the soothing rhythms of network television. And that keeps us at a distance from understanding what this particular situation, the Detroit auto crisis, should demand of us.

Margo Hall’s Faye is perhaps indicative of the many tensions here. There are moments where Hall gives a searing and controlled performance. You look into her eyes and you see a woman who, at 50, has just had it, and is ready to let the world destroy her. But too often what we get is a performance of a performance.

There’s a scene where Faye, who is living in the plant, gets dressed for work as she listens to an Aretha Franklin song. Nothing quite goes right, from fastening her bra strap to applying deodorant. As a bit, it’s a slick audience-pleasing piece of comic acting, but it tells us nothing of Faye’s life or the factory.

Whether it manifests in a poetic speech or a comic routine, there’s a lack of verve and focus to Morisseau’s vision of American industry. At moments, you can see her talent for depicting the political and economic forces that are destroying whole communities, and her care for the subject material is obvious. But like so many socially concerned, contemporary American dramas, Skeleton Crew has no clear purpose. That it ends both sentimentally and ironically is an indictment of a play that should have been a direct indictment of a grotesque economic and human failure in Detroit.

'Skeleton Crew' runs through February 18, at Marin Theatre Co. For tickets and information, click here.