Review: The Life of the "Skeleton Crew"

Jill Weinlein

  • Chief Los Angeles Theatre Critic

Walking into the Geffen Playhouse to take my seat, I was wowed by scenic designer Rachel Myers dramatic and detailed two-story set. Downstairs is a break room with metal lockers, bulletin boards, tables and chairs, and a small kitchenette. One immediately can tell this is set in Detroit with stickers of the city’s hockey team the Red Wings and football team the Lions on the wall.

Upstairs is an assembly line with automotive wheel rims hanging down. When one of the workers power up the drill to work on the moving silver rims, smoke rises and dissipates near the UAW (United Automobile Workers of America) Local 167 sign hanging over in the corner.

A chain link fence with barbed wire is partially peeking out along both the front stage wings.

The play opens with lighting designer Pablo Santiago’s fluorescent work lights illuminating the stage and auto factory break room.

 Kelly McCreary, Caroline Stefanie Clay and Amari Cheatom (Chris Whitaker)

Kelly McCreary, Caroline Stefanie Clay and Amari Cheatom (Chris Whitaker)

Set right before the recession in 2007, when Detroit’s auto factories were starting to close, the four co-workers—Faye, Dez, Reggie and Shanita are hard working assembly line plant employees that are proud of what they do.

Directed by Patricia McGregor, the play illuminates the layered relationships these blue-collar workers have developed over the years. They are like a family, as they navigate the instability and uncertainty of their personal and work life.

Since they are part of one of the last standing small automotive factories, these four are uncertain of how long they will get to keep their job. Throughout the play they each have their loyalty and patience tested.

This is the third installment of Dominique Morisseau’s acclaimed trilogy “The Detroit Project.” Morisseau’s dialect and dialogue offer poignant lines about global change that continues today, even after the recession. Factory workers are a dying breed.

What enhances this play is sound designer Everett Elton Bradman’s choice of Motown music featuring The Supremes, Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin.

Faye (acting dynamo Caroline Stefanie Clay) is respected by all. This tough lesbian and cancer survivor has a soft heart. She is the union rep at her plant and mother hen in the break room. She is a joy to watch as she playfully teases her supervisor Reggie (another great actor DB Woodside). Even though Reggie posts “No Smoking Faye” signs all over the break room, she lights one up whenever she desires. Clay’s emotional performance and facial expressions allow the audience to laugh during these dire and dismal times.

The break room is where rumors start, card games are played and meals are shared. It’s been Faye’s sanctuary and hideaway for 29 years. She would like to make it to her 30th anniversary, to ensure her health insurance and benefits. We learn Faye helped Reggie, a high school drop out, get a job at the factory 15 years ago. He rose to a white collar supervisor, donning a button down shirt and tie, instead of a work shirt and boots. His status has earned him enough money to purchase his first house and the uncertainty of the factory is stressful for him too.

Reggie confides to Faye that he learned that the factory is going to close by the end of the year, and begs her to keep this news a secret from the others until Human Resources makes the announcement. This is difficult for Faye because she cares so much for the others. When Dez and Shanita question her about the lifeline of the company, she reroutes their fear by stating “If you inhale enough rumors, you clog up your lungs and die of asphyxiation.”

Signs on the bulletin board reads “If you are on time, you are late.” It’s meant for Dez (Amari Cheatom). He is a little combative with Reggie, as he senses that the factory is going to shut down soon. He dreams of owning his own shop, yet needs more time to gather his finances and resources. Woodside delivers lighting bolt performances that are raw, powerful and emotionally, especially during some intense scenes with Dez. This is what live theatre is all about.

Pregnant Shanita (Kelly McCreary) with swollen feet and hormonal mood swings, tries to take as much overtime as she can get to financially prepare for her baby. Her likable performance has the audience on her side enjoying the playful banter with Dez. Their relationship blossoms as they become the Skeleton Crew before the factory closes.

In the end, pay attention to learn who has been stealing parts from the factory and why Faye and Reggie have a special bond.

This play offers a peek into the life of Detroit auto workers balancing on the edge of a huge precipice, before the federal bailout later helped automakers regain profitability.

Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends July 8. Tickets: $25-$90 Information: (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.org Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one intermission.