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Review: Engrossing and Altogether Too Real SKELETON CREW at Trinity Rep

SKELETON CREW, currently running in rotation with Death of a Salesman at Trinity Rep is a story similar to Death of a Salesman in that it focuses on workers being forced away from their careers. This group works in an auto factory and face plant closure while realizing that all the hard work and years they've put into their jobs can be snatched away with little-to-no-notice. The cast is small and the sets are minimal but the layers in this play are sprawling and completely relatable, even to people who have never been in this kind of work. Everyone has suffered the jolt of unrealized expectations; everyone has had their loyalties and priorities tested and everyone has made mistakes. This may be a play about factory workers on the surface, but it's an incredibly human story of choices, perseverance and relationships.

It's also interesting to see this play presented alongside Death of a Salesman. The parallels in story are undeniable, but where Willy Loman is the focus of the story in Death; SKELETON CREW uses the story of two women--Faye and Shanita to raise the stakes and empathy. The downside of this pairing is only that putting any play up against Death of a Salesman is going to make the other play looks worse. Not because the other play is poorly written, but because Death of a Salesman is just that good. Playwright Dominique Morriseau skillfully layers revelations throughout the play, that keep the plot moving at an excellent pace, but there gets to be a point where it feels like there are almost too many issues shoved into a two+ hour play. That said, it never quite feels over the top, and manages to convey that overwhelmed panic to the audience that our characters are certainly feeling. She takes it right to the brink, but never over.

A play of this nature needs a very strong cast who can work well with each other. Thankfully, our four actors in this production are probably the best we could ever see. By far, the star of this show is Faye played by Lizan Mitchell, the foul-mouthed, chain smoking, gambling matriarch of the factory floor. At 29 years of work, she's close to retirement and at the beginning seems to have started her long goodbye until the pension kicks in. This is a role that initially seems like tremendous fun to play. Faye swears and intimidates her supervisor and provides laugh after laugh, but then circumstances become more dire and that's when Mitchell's performance really becomes raw. There is no moment when she doesn't own the stage, but her performance is absolutely magnetic in Act II when we start to learn more about her personal circumstances, and see her conflicted relationship with factory supervisor (non-union) Reggie, played by Jude Sandy. Mitchell handles both the comedy and the raw emotional moments beautifully. Her performance is nothing short of stunning, and it serves to give this play the heart that it needs to really resonate.

The other standout performance comes from Shenyse LeAnna Harris as Shanita. Shanita is about six months pregnant and comes from a factory family. She takes tremendous pride in the skill her job requires saying "Everybody can't do what I do", and talks about how in working the auto line, she's helping create something that will help people live their lives and have adventures--something that will help people. Oftentimes when we talk about factory work, it is described as a better-paying low-skill job, but Shanita really hones in on the craftsmanship of it, and the thrill of creating something that will go out into the world. Harris's performance is equal parts poetic, soft and sassy. She comes off as someone who knows what she is and what she wants, and even though it seems like the odds are very much stacked against her, there's a sense that she will come out of it ok.

The men in this production are somewhat less interesting. Jude Sandy's Reggie is torn between his concern about losing his job and what that means for his family, and his loyalty to Faye. Dez, played by Will Adams has a troubled past that he seems like he wants to leave behind, but can't quite get there. Trinity Rep resident actor Jude Sandy is excellent as always, but Adam's performance is the one weak spot in this production. While the other cast members performance's have more subtlety and nuance, Adams comes off as one note. He feels more like a stock character of troubled young man than as a well-rounded individual. This could be a combination of performance and a less well-written character, but there were many moments that seemed forced. The performance would be less obviously weak if not juxtaposed by three other incredibly strong showings.

This is a play that not only feels incredibly true to life, but one that is also highly entertaining and touching. Unlike Death of a Salesman, which feels current in the scope of its issues, but obviously takes place in another time, SKELETON CREW feels like it happened yesterday. That immediacy delivered by excellent performances creates something striking and unforgettable.

PROVIDENCE, RI: Trinity Repertory Company presents Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene.
Performances run through November 22, in repertory with Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Tickets are on sale by phone at (401) 351-4242, online at www.TrinityRep.com, or in person at the theater's box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence.

Photo: Left to right: Shenyse Harris as Shanita and Lizan Mitchell as Faye Photo Mark Turek.



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