Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Four Characters in Seach of a Plot

Skeleton Crew -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Through June 22

Perri Gaffney as Faye. Photo by Carol Rosegg


                To paraphrase Chekhov, if you show a gun in the first act of the play, it damn well better go off later on in the play. This is much akin to Hitchcock’s oft-quoted comment about a bomb underneath the table that eventually must go off. Well, playwright Dominique Morisseau shows us a gun early on in Skeleton Crew, which recently opened at Westport Country Playhouse, but, unfortunately, the gun never gets fired, and that somehow sums up the play, for although there’s a lot of development and implied relationships, the ‘big bang’ one might hope for never occurs, and thus the final scene has one of the main characters standing on stage, silent except for a sigh. He, perhaps along with the audience, might have been hoping for a more dramatic closure.

                The play, under the direction of La Williams, takes place in Detroit circa 2008. The country’s rust belt has already oxidized, and the play’s four characters work at a stamping plant that, it is rumored, will soon close. Morrisseau uses this backdrop to deal with, or at least touch upon, many issues, including corporate greed, the implosion of inner cities, racism, street violence and feminism – a heady brew that one might think will lead to some startling “bangs” but, alas, there are just whimpers. All of the action, such as it is, takes place in one of the plant’s break rooms, designed by Caite Hevner. The single-set creates constraints that the actors must overcome if they are to convey the conflict necessary for any drama to succeed and the necessity to convey the larger issues outside the confines of this small room. Many things are alluded to, but none of them are fully realized.

                What does come to life, engagingly so, is the character of Faye, portrayed by Perri Gaffney. She, a somewhat world-weary lesbian, has been working at this plant for 29 years and has become a mother-figure, of sorts, for the pregnant Shanita (Toni Martin), the street-smart Dez (Leland Fowler) and their supervisor, Reggie (Sean Nelson). Thanks to Gaffney, the interaction among these four characters is quite engaging – would that it was leading to some kind of conclusion. There seems to be as many plot lines as threads in a sweater, but Morriseau never really knits them together. It seems, at moments, as if we have four characters in search of reasons for being on stage.

                There’s Dez, the angry young man – he’s the one carrying the gun in his backpack. He fulminates and protests the unfairness of the system, but in the end his personality seems to fizzle out. Then there’s Shanita, a rather aimless young lady who, for whatever reason, sounds like she’s from the South and gives the impression she’s a sharecropper’s daughter – her character’s function seems, for the most part, to convey the idea that pregnant women need to eat a lot of stuff that probably isn’t good for them. Finally, there’s Reggie, who came up from the labor ranks and is now a manager who, well, doesn’t seem to know how to manage. Relational ties are hinted at but never really brought to light, and character flaws, like Faye’s gambling problem, are introduced so late in the play that they have little bearing on the proceedings.

                  So, what we have in Skeleton Crew is a grouping of character studies, interesting to a certain degree in and of themselves, but with no overarching dramatic sense of rising action, climax and denouement. The characters evoke our interest…as characters…but do we really care about them? I would suggest not.

                Skeleton Crew runs through June 22. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

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