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Sweat, the play that snagged Lynn Nottage her second Pulitzer Prize, opened its pre-Broadway run at Arena Stage last year just a couple of weeks after Dominique Morrisseau’s Skeleton Crew had its world premiere at the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York City. The two dramas share more than a casual resemblance: Both were written by women of color, both are set at least partially in 2008, both are about factory workers desperately clinging to the jobs that afford them a dwindling standard of living, both count sympathetic (and black) mid-level managers who worry they’re betraying their subordinates among their dramatis personae. Sweat takes place in Reading, Pennsylvania. Skeleton Crew takes place in Detroit. It’s the third play Morrisseau has written about her hometown. As with August Wilson’s Pittsburgh-set Century Cycle, each entry in Morrisseau’s Detroit series unfolds in a different era.
Along with that Pulitzer, Sweat got a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and three Tony Award nominations and transferred to Broadway before closing earlier this summer. But Skeleton Crew has been produced in more cities, for an eminently sound reason: It’s a better play.
It’s a more naturalistic, more contained, more absorbing, less yell-y play. It’s a more persuasive play. Sweat, contrary to dramaturgical advice, tells more than it shows. But Skeleton Crew lets its observations about the winnowing of America’s manufacturing base and the implosion of the communities it once supported emerge organically from the rich soil Morisseau has seeded. It speaks its arguments softly enough for us to hear them.
And it would be tough to imagine a more confident production than the one Patricia McGregor has brought to Studio Theatre, featuring an all-killer, no-filler cast that with the exception of Shannon Dorsey, who appeared in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water in 2010, has never performed there before.
First among equals is Caroline Stefanie Clay. As Faye, the shop steward with 29 years in and just months to go before she can retire with a full pension, she rules the break room where the play is set like it’s her own kingdom, smoking and playing cards in defiance of the rules and signs posted by manager Reggie, played by Tyee Tilghman. (The set, by Tim Brown, is believably lived-in, and welding sparks tickle the margins of the stage over the scene changes.) There’s a bond between them that’s usually strong enough to bridge the gap between labor and management—Reggie’s mother was Faye’s partner before she died.
Faye has survived heartbreak and lung cancer and the alienation of her own son and the slow leak of the labor movement for as long as she’s been paying her union dues, but she bears these burdens stoically. As rumors that management will begin big layoffs as a prelude to a permanent shutdown of the plant seem to grow more credible, she has a tougher time swallowing her agita.
She seems to view the younger generation of workers, Shanita and Dez, played by Dorsey and the charismatic Jason Bowen, respectively, with paternal affection. Dez, a skilled worker with a short fuse, is trying to hold on to his job long enough to put together a down payment on his own garage. He’s enough of a hustler to complain that the union is just another scam, and pragmatic enough to keep an unlicensed Beretta semiautomatic in his locker. When an increasingly brazen series of burglaries begins at the plant, suspicion falls on him.
Shanita is a rule-follower beloved by the managers upstairs, but she’s also pregnant and on the outs with the baby’s father. She dismisses Dez’s chaste romantic overtures as sexual harassment, but doesn’t like it when he’s not around to walk her to her car at the end of the shift. And the way Dorsey’s face lights up when she’s scanning over a list of baby names Faye brings in shows us a tenderness that her character mostly keeps covered up. Reggie’s pride in having moved his family to a neighborhood where his kids can safely play outside brings its own kind of desperation—a terror of falling off the ladder. Everyone has their secrets, but they are secrets mandated by dignity, not venality or malice.
That would be another advantage Skeleton Crew has over Sweat: There’s no villain. Everyone is right. And on the infrequent instances when Morisseau gives somebody an aria—like Shanita’s road-rage monologue at the top of the second act about how people just need to learn how to merge—this cast makes you believe it. They craft a compelling illusion the way Johnny Cash described stealing himself a car direct from the factory in one of the few songs he ever set in Motown, “One Piece at a Time.”
At Studio Theatre to Oct. 8. 1501 14th St. NW. $20-$85. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.