It says something about the depth and quality of playwright Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” that it feels at once so period-specific and so current.

It’s Detroit in 2008. The entire American car industry is, or soon will be, under threat of total collapse. The impact already extends far beyond the giant factories of the name-brand manufacturers into smaller providers of various parts.

‘SKELETON CREW’
Highly Recommended
When: Through March 3
Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets: $30 – $81
Info: northlight.org
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

In the dingy break room of one such small factory, we meet four characters feeling the stress of the moment.

There’s Faye (Jacqueline Williams), the union rep and a legend at this plant, who wants to at least reach her 30-year work anniversary. There’s Dez (Bernard Gilbert), a twenty-something planning to save enough to start his own mechanic’s garage, and trying, with a mix of awkwardly obvious come-ons and gentlemanly courtesy, to spark up a romance with Shanita (AnJi White). She’s a few months pregnant, on the cusp of new responsibilities, and wants as much overtime as she can get until she has to take maternity leave. Unlike her co-workers, Shanita avidly follows all the rules that their oft-frustrated but well-meaning supervisor Reggie (Kelvin Roston Jr.) posts, to little avail, on the bulletin board.

Morisseau’s characters, particularly in the hands of this superb cast and under the direction of Ron OJ Parson at Northlight Theatre, are utterly believable, and the language, a rich and real urban African-American vernacular, possesses just the right grounded lyricism. It’s worth noting that this version of the play runs nearly a half-hour longer than the New York production. Parson lets silences in, relaxes the playing, letting scenes unfold at a very realistic-style pace. Still, the evening feels taut, never languorous or dull. The relationships among the characters emerge carefully at first, and then with occasional surprises, especially as the rumors about the plant’s closing turn out to be true, forcing Reggie to make hard decisions about how to cull down the already skeleton crew to those who will stay to the end.

While the acting is uniformly excellent, it is the phenomenal Williams and Roston Jr. who, as details unfold and pressure escalates, achieve moments of greatest emotional power as they expose their characters’ unseen weaknesses and deep fears.

“Skeleton Crew” is part of a trilogy Morisseau has written called the Detroit Project, and the third of the triptych to be produced in Chicago (“Detroit ‘67” was staged by Northlight, while “Paradise Blue,” set in the 40s, was produced by Timeline Theater last year). Each work stands fully on its own, but it may well be the confidence of having a broader canvas to work with that enabled Morisseau to bring such an admirable focus, even an appealing modesty, to “Skeleton Crew.”

AnJi White (from left), Bernard Gilbert, Jacqueline Williams and Kelvin Roston Jr. in “Skeleton Crew” at Northlight Theatre. | Charles Osgood Photography

While there’s a nod to the coldness of automation in the interstices between scenes — in this production, set designer Scott Davis has built a set of robotic pulleys above the ceiling of the break room that move and, thanks to sound designer Ray Nardelli, hum — this play doesn’t stretch into formal innovation. In fact, although set in a workplace, this qualifies as good old American kitchen-sink realism. But the specific focus on characters in the context of their time and place enables the broader themes to organically emerge without any over-statement. Through these characters we can clearly see the disappearing manufacturing economy and with it the middle class, the loss of labor’s political power, and how the fraying of our social contract plays on individuals’ sense of self. And even though a decade has passed since the setting of this work, these concerns seem as relevant as ever, and perhaps always will.

Ultimately, Morisseau’s compassion for these people makes “Skeleton Crew” deeply affecting. Our lives are both of our own making and at the odd whimsy of forces, both internal and external, that we can only minimally control. Morisseau’s vision is a fundamentally moral, but not moralistic one. Every character here is trying to do the right thing for themselves and for others, and that makes them awfully easy to root for against the modern forces of a Darwinian economy.

Steven Oxman is a Chicago-based freelance writer.