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The American auto industry may be spiraling into oblivion with factories closing and whole towns rusting into nothingness. But it’s the fate of the American worker that concerns Dominique Morisseau.
Born and bred in Detroit, the playwright forges an elegy for the workers who once made the Motor City hum in “Skeleton Crew.” She cuts deep into the marrow of the American myth of hard work leading to rewards in this shattering TheatreWorks production, astutely directed by Jade King Carroll in a co-production with Marin Theatre Company.
A devastatingly emotional ode to the death of a way of life, this haunting drama is part of the playwright’s “Detroit Trilogy.” Like “Pipeline” and “Detroit ’67,” this play celebrates the little guy, the underdogs of the Motor City who are toiling away for little money and less respect, struggling to keep their head up and fend off homelessness amid a supposedly robust economy. The hard times have just begun for them and they know it.
The anguish and exhaustion of the last small plant standing is crystallized in Ed Hayne’s richly evocative set design. The workers huddle in a shabby break room with peeling paint and oppressive fluorescent lighting to take refuge from a harsh world. In there, if nowhere else, they feel safe.
Management is hacking away at the assembly line, whittling the workforce down to just the bare bones, pushing workers like Shanita (Tristan Cunningham), who is pregnant, and Dez (Christian Thompson) who is temperamental, way past their limits.
All they have going for them is Faye (the always magnificent Margo Hall), their union rep and den mother. She’s a 29-year veteran of the plant, the queen of the break room, and she knows how to fight for her people. She even knows how to work the foreman Reggie (Lance Gardner), someone she treats like a son, to her best advantage. Only there are some fights that cannot be won.
When Reggie tips her off that the plant is shuttering before the year is out, she is tormented by her loyalties, trying to keep his secret but also protect her people. What does a single mother do without health insurance? How can she hold them all together when her own life is falling apart?
Hall mines the cadence and complexities of Morisseau’s (“Ain’t Too Proud”) language beautifully. The actress finds the grandeur in Faye’s quiet dignity, her fearlessness in the face of life’s vagaries. Gardner also soars as the conflicted middle manager who wants to help out his workers but can’t cross the brass without risking his own neck.
Like all of these characters, Faye has made mistakes she can’t take back but she never blames other people for her woes, even though that might be fair. She pulls her weight even when it breaks her. That sense of pride suffuses this play, from Shanita’s poetic riffs on the factory making her feel part of something greater than herself to Faye’s unshakable belief that you build your destiny even if you are living out of your car.
Amid the mounting sense of doom, Morisseau allows flickers of hope for the future, for the integrity of people watching each other’s backs and the staccato succor of the poetry of the vernacular.
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Attention must be paid to this deeply resonant drama because it is not just about auto workers. It is about all workers. It is about anyone who depends on their paycheck. It is about me and you.
By Dominique Morisseau, presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Through: April 1
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Running time: 2 hours, one intermission
Tickets: $40-$100; 650-463-1960, theatreworks.org