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At Paul Robeson, a poetic look at the end of the line

A cloud of toxic tension hangs over the characters of "Skeleton Crew," Dominique Morriseau's powerful commentary on the human consequences of inhuman greed running through Feb. 11 in the Paul Robeson Theatre.

The play, directed with a wide emotional palette by Paulette Harris, is the last in Morriseau's trilogy of works set in Detroit -- though it may as well be set in Buffalo. It chronicles the dying days of an auto stamping plant in that gutted city, where the remaining workers struggle to relinquish their pride in a profession that no longer takes pride in them.

"Skeleton Crew," shot through with union politics and passion, is in part a lament for America's vanished industrial economy. But, more than that, it is a warning about what happens when good people are pushed to the edge of their goodness by the cruel forces of the market and its unsentimental acolytes.

In the tiny break room of the stamping plant, whose distant clinks and whirrs we can hear via Tierra D. Townsend's sound design, there is no shortage of sentiment and soul.

It comes in the form of disquisitions from the aging union rep Faye (Verneice Turner, at the top of her craft), who sneaks cigarettes against company rules and worries about making 30 years before the plant shuts down. It's there in the agitated young worker Dez (Julius Land), who harbors big dreams about life beyond the line along with plenty of personal demons.

And it's present in the words of Shanita (Christina Foster), a young pregnant line worker who speaks in almost mystical terms about her love for the job and the spirit of a factory that fostered and financed thousands of working-class lives.

Even the factory foreman Reggie (Phil Davis) tries in vain to tamp down his own emotional attachment to the workers in service to his bosses. But on his face, as elsewhere in this thematically rich play, a struggle plays out between personal and collective interest, between the demands of human decency and those of a merciless globalized economy.

The great strength of Morriseau's writing, heavily influenced by the lyrical work of August Wilson, is the way it mixes the language of the street with her own more heightened poetic sensibility. Faye, for example, is always dispensing lightning-fast quips to mask her own struggles and put her fellow workers at ease about whether the plant will close. "If 'if' was a fifth," she says in the midst of a heavy discussion about the plant's imminent closure, "we'd all be drunk."

The cast does a fine job with this material, giving themselves over to their characters fully, if sometimes pushing the script slightly into melodramatic territory. Turner, however, is far-and-away the focal point of the production. She imbues Faye with equal parts charm and pain, always struggling to conceal her torrential troubles under a cracked veneer of sage wisdom and cutting snark.

Foster, Land and Davis are each deeply attuned to the material, though each in their own way could also benefit from a bit more subtlety in their performances. Interstitial dancing from gifted performer Arterist "Peaze" Molson adds a welcome sense of the outside streets and their dangers to the play's otherwise claustrophobic setting, though some theatergoers may find it difficult to connect those starkly lit moments to the action of the play.

Harlan Penn's set, lit expertly by Malik Griffin, is the picture of a run-down break room, complete with cracked doors, a grungy coffee pot and a microwave and space heater -- only one of which can be plugged in at a time.

It's not an easy play to watch, by any means. But this handsome production, despite the gravity of the subject matter and its relevance for Buffalo audiences still mourning our own dead industries, helps us focus on the positive: No matter how bad it gets for workers, these characters teach us, solidarity will pull us through.

Theater Review

3 stars (out of four)

"Skeleton Crew" runs through Feb. 11 in the Paul Robeson Theatre, 350 Masten Ave. Tickets are $20 to $30. Call 884-2013 or visit aaccbuffalo.org.

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