The most frightening moment in Artists Repertory Theatre's production of Skeleton Crew is when Reggie (Bobby Bermea), a foreman at a Detroit auto plant, roars at three of his subordinates, "Let's walk!" He wants them out of the building, and to make his point, he shouts those words as if he were Alexander the Great.
Since the play is set during the height of the Great Recession, in 2008, his tyrannical tone might be understandable given the looming insecurity. But when the real reason for his behavior is revealed, it's impossible not to feel for him. Skeleton Crew is about many things—race, class, economic injustice—but above all, it unveils the unspoken love and fear hidden behind the worn faces of its characters.
The belief that no one is exactly who they appear to be fuels Skeleton Crew, which is the third play in a trilogy about playwright Dominique Morisseau's hometown. It may be about characters facing financial annihilation, but the story never subjects them to condescending pity. They are realized in all their glorious complexity as eccentric, funny and romantic human beings.
Most of the play takes place in the break room, where the workers under Reggie's command—Faye (Shelley B. Shelley), Dez (Vin Shambry) and Shanita (Tamera Lyn)—eat, goof off and listen warily as whispers of the plant's closing waft through the door. There are times when the play is intensely grim—it's not for nothing we often hear the hiss and bang of heavy machinery in the distance. Yet Faye, Dez and Shanita often weather hardship with wit, most memorably in a scene in which Reggie declares they have to choose between plugging in the break room's space heater or microwave. Dez defuses the situation by cracking, "If that ain't 'hood, I don't know what is."
Skeleton Crew also features a set that's a cornucopia of tangible details, from the grime-stained fridge to the vending machine packed with bags of chips. Equally magnificent is a screen that, during surreal interludes, turns dancers into silhouettes as they use their bodies to communicate the fury and vulnerability the characters are rarely free to share.
When they do express it, the results are transfixing. In one scene, we discover the harrowing depths of Faye's torments. Her ordeals include the cancer that has ravaged her body, the gambling addiction that gnaws at her paycheck and the religious son who has rejected her because she is a lesbian. Many actors would have used her anguish as a chance to emotionally collapse. Not Shelley. She announces each and every horror in a matter-of-fact tone that says, "Don't feel sorry for me. I've been beaten down, but I'm not broken. I'm living."
The play is great theater and a wake-up call for white Portlanders who've never imagined the life of a black factory worker in Detroit. But it's also a triumphant middle finger to a society that frequently insists on painting working-class women and men as victims or cannon fodder.
SEE IT: Skeleton Crew is at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., artistsrep.org. 7:30 pm Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturday-Sunday, through Sept. 30. No show Tuesday, Sept. 18. Added show noon Wednesday, Sept. 19. $30-$60.