Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” being produced by Summit Performance Indianapolis at the Phoenix Theatre through March 13, is set in the breakroom of an automotive plant.
There, Faye (Dwandra Nickole Lampkin), a long-time worker on the line and a union rep, Shanita (Akili Ni Mali) a diligent — and pregnant — co-worker, and Dez (Kerrington Shorter), a colleague who doesn’t take shit gladly, attempt to maintain some control of their lives while their industry disappears around them. Reggie (Daniel A. Martin) attempts to serve as the intermediary with management, who we never see.
— In any theater production, the ability to lose oneself in a play is largely dependent on the the ensemble. A weak link or two can shift focus from the play itself to the talents of the strongest performers. This can be okay if you care more about watching performances rather than immersing yourself in the reality the playwright is trying to create. But that’s rarely the case with a drama. I want to be lost in it, thinking about the plights of the characters. In “Skeleton Crew,” the four-member ensemble has no weak links. Kudos to the casting team for assembling an uncompromised team that has the talent to make the most of outstanding and timely material.
— At the risk of singling one cast member out, though, Dwandra Nickole Lampkin (given much more to work with here than she had last year directing “Number 6” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre last season) offers the finest, grounded, most truthfully detailed performance I’ve seen in the Phoenix Cultural Center since the building opened. Faye is someone constantly stepping back but who keeps finding a way to stay on her feet and the challenges she navigates can be read not just on her face and in her voice, but in her walk. I’m sure Phylicia Rashad is very good in the Broadway production, but I’m glad I saw Lampkin. Even if the play weren’t as solid as it is, I’d recommend seeing the play just for her.
— Speaking of which, it is a wonder that Summit was able to hold onto the rights to the show once the Broadway production was announced.
— The play is part of Morisseau’s three-play cycle, the others being “Detroit ’67” and “Paradise Blue.” And as evidenced in “Skeleton Crew,” she knows well how important place can be. That’s true for the city in macro as well as for the breakroom in micro. And scenic designer MeJah Balams gets the details right.
— “Skeleton Crew” could serve as a master class in character development. Through complaints, digs, moments of empathy and subtle “let’s leave it at that” swerves, this quartet of all-too-human characters raises the piece above simple “issue play.” Like the best dramas, it’s about specific people with universal attributes. Blatant exposition is pretty much nonexistent. The story emerges naturally from the characters.
— Important plays have been anchored in violence against people of color. But not every play with Black characters and a gun has to lead in the same direction. Chekhov’s rule aside, I appreciate what Morisseau does here with those (possible) expectations.
— It is significant that we never see management and that there is not a villain on stage.
— Read the signs — and not just the ones the line workers ignore.
— Bias admission: Characters recounting their dreams always feel like a writer’s crutch to me, screaming “symbol alert!” I never buy it, even from a writer as talented as Morisseau. Akili Ni Mali sincere delivery certainly helps, though.
— The set, constructed by Sapphire Theatre Co’s David Orr and Andrew Hastings with the aforementioned Balams, is both outstanding and surprising. I don’t recall as realistic a set being built for work on the Phoenix’s second stage space. For me, the only questionable call was the electronic wall where an attempt was made during scene changes to offer an abstract of the dehumanization of the factory work. Rather than deepen my connection to the work, it pulled me out of it and the production didn’t need it.
— Sound matters. When I think of this place, I hear the opening, closing — and sometimes slamming — of metal lockers.
— Credit director Melissa Mowry for making it all work. And to the Summit team for pulling it all together.
–It is remarkable how companies that emerged over the last few years, Summit and American Lives Theatre, have become two of the most interesting producers in town of theater that connects to real lives. In both of those cases, I always look forward to what’s next.
–It is also remarkable that two Morisseau plays will be offered simultaneiously in Indy. Her “Mud Row” opens March 4 at Fonseca Theatre. I’m looking forward to that as well.