“They’re shutting us down, ain’t they.’’
When an auto worker named Faye poses that query to her foreman early in Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,’’ there’s no question mark in Faye’s voice. She already knows the answer.
Variations on Faye’s grimly foreboding words have echoed across the country in the first two decades of the 21st century. To work in manufacturing during this period has been to exist in a state of constant pressure, the vise of bad news growing steadily tighter. Bloodless euphemisms like “downsizing’’ don’t begin to capture the lived reality for those caught in that vise.
That’s the job of dramatists, and Morisseau rises impressively to the challenge with a combination of compassion and craft in “Skeleton Crew.’’ Perceptively directed at the Huntington by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, it’s a taut, keenly observed, thoroughly absorbing drama about the impact of the Great Recession on blue-collar workers.
Not that the playwright, for all the energy of her writing, is intent on calling attention to Big Themes in “Skeleton Crew,’’ which is set in the break room of a Detroit auto-parts stamping plant during the winter of 2008. No, what Morisseau sketches in deft, sure strokes is the kind of small-scale human portraiture that resonates precisely because of its specificity and lack of grandiosity. (It’s as if the playwright is heeding E.B. White’s advice to writers: “Don’t write about Man, write about a man.’’)
While “Skeleton Crew’’ unfolds against the backdrop of Detroit’s economic struggles, and Wilson Chin’s scenic design features moving car doors whose start-and-stop motions mirror the disrupted rhythms of the once-mighty auto industry and those who depend on it, Morisseau anchors “Skeleton Crew’’ in the aspirations, secrets, fears and frustrations of her play’s four African-American characters. Then she goes on to trace the subtle connections among them as those connections grow or fray or are painstakingly rebuilt during the course of the play.
Faye (Patricia R. Floyd), is the union rep and the oldest of the quartet. The others look up to her, but Faye is struggling emotionally and financially in ways they know nothing about.
She needs just one more year on the job to make it to 30 years, which would mean a decent retirement package. But foreman Reggie (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) — who has a history with Faye that runs deep, on both personal and professional lines — confirms to her that, yes, the plant is going to close soon.
However, he asks that Faye not divulge that information to her two co-workers, Shanita (Toccarra Cash) and Dez (Jonathan Louis Dent), or to the union. Disclosure would result in his firing, Reggie tells her; silence and time are needed, he tells Faye, while he and she “figure out what we can do to soften this blow.’’ Faye consents to secrecy, leaving her co-workers in the dark. (Her agreement to stay mum feels not entirely persuasive; her rationale needs to be developed further, given that it’s such a central plot point.) Tensions start rising in the break room, especially between Reggie and Dez, as rumors about the factory’s possible closure continue to swirl. Meanwhile, someone keeps stealing materials from the plant at night.
Dez is restless and rebellious, strategizing toward the day when he can open his own business while seething over the rumors the plant will close before he’ll have saved enough money. He flirts relentlessly with Shanita, who is pregnant and in denial about the possibility that the plant could close.
The performances in “Skeleton Crew’’ are solid across the board. Floyd brings a weary gravity to Faye, a compelling sense that the character possesses a core that has sustained her through many kinds of loss and may yet see her through her latest challenges. Parent conveys the conflicted energies roiling within Reggie, caught between his duties as a supervisor and his slowly escalating awareness of the right thing to do.
Dent artfully reveals the layers within Dez, whose bravado functions as a kind of armor against the forces, seen and unseen, that threaten his future. Best of all is Cash as Shanita, subtly suggesting the uncertainty beneath the young woman’s vitality and seeming confidence. Shanita has an awful lot riding on her job, not just income but identity, and the expression on Cash’s face when Shanita learns the plant is indeed closing speaks volumes: It’s as if her world is coming to an end.
Play by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through March 31. Tickets start at $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org