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'Skeleton Crew' - Timeless and Moving Human Drama

Jason Dirden, Lynda Gravatt, and Nikiya Mathis in Skeleton Crew
(©Ahron Foster)

A timeless and moving human drama unfolds in Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, which opened last night at Atlantic Stage 2 in Chelsea.

Set in 2008, the play centers on four employees at a troubled car factory as the auto industry undergoes a crisis while facing its potentially imminent demise. At the show's heart is Faye (Lynda Gravatt), a veteran of nearly 30 years at the company, where, as she puts it, "I been from stamping doors to installing shocks to them seven years I spent sewing interiors." Faye also serves as the union rep at the plant, a kind of surrogate mother, not just for her assembly-line co-workers Dez (Jason Dirden) and Shanita (Nikya Mathis) but also for Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin), a foreman at the plant and a man whose late mother was Faye's dearest friend.

The action unfolds in the break room at the plant (brought to the stage with a lived-in warmth and also factory-filled grime by scenic designer Michael Carnahan and lit with careful fluorescent glare by Rui Rita), and it reveals what happens when Faye has to balance her friendships with both sides of the corporate equation. Reggie reveals early on that the plant is going be shut down and asks her to help him keep it quiet. This, of course, is antithetical to her position for the union, but out of friendship she agrees.

The balance of the drama comes from both smaller life incidents, such as the ongoing flirtation between Dez and Shanita, and larger ones, like Reggie's ongoing persecution of Dez, which ultimately brings the play to its climax and sad conclusion.

Directed with gentleness, an eye for detail, and a sure sense of style by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Skeleton Crew captures audiences' imaginations. Adesola Osakalumi's stylized dance-movement sequences complement Santiago-Hudson's work, re-creating the arduous and monotonous routine of the assembly line. These sequences—set to sound designer Robert Kaplowitz's original music—open the production and punctuate certain scenes.

The cast delivers Morisseau's drama—and comedy—with aplomb. Gravatt's turn as Faye combines gruffness and seen-it-all weariness with incredible compassion and sensitivity. As Dez, Dirden blends hotheadedness and streetwise hauteur with an air of maturity to exquisite effect, and, as Shanita, Mathis fuses a sense of femininity and tomboyish-ness in her performance, layering it with a kind of dreaminess that makes the character continually intriguing. Franklin's rendering of Reggie is equally nuanced, and even when the character is at his most "managerial," it's difficult not to feel for this man, who’s walking a thin line of being both a businessman and friend.

The play slowly and consistently goes to work on theatergoers' minds and hearts and in the end proves both deeply moving and thought provoking. It's a sumptuous combination of writing and performance, resulting in a production that lingers well after the audience has left the theater.

---- Andy Propst

Skeleton Crew plays at Atlantic Stage 2(330 East 16th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: atlantictheater.org.