A workplace break room provides little relief for the four characters in the latest production from Portland Stage.

Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” takes us back to 2008, when the U.S auto industry and the economy in general were in rapid decline. The audience gets to listen in as two veteran and two younger workers assess rumors about their plant closing. Under growing stress, their relationships approach breaking points as they struggle to come up with some sort of plan for their uncertain future.

There are multiple societal layers touched on by the author but the plight of everyday people, who are nonetheless extraordinary in their own way, is front and center. It all makes for a gritty but ultimately life-affirming time at the theater, with themes that resonate far beyond Morisseau’s hometown setting of Detroit.

Faye (Olivia Williams) is a motherly figure who is just short of retirement. As a union rep, she has an uneasy feeling about Reggie (Toussaint K. Jeanlouis), a family friend of hers who has ascended to a management position. Does he still identify with those on the production line?

Joining them are Dez (Brandon J. Pierce), a young man hoping to save up enough to open a small business, and Shanita (Folami Williams) who, despite being single and pregnant, hopes to continue in the job she loves.

The action takes place entirely in the detailed break room set (designed by Anita Stewart) above which scenes of the busy factory floor are periodically projected (lighting designed by Bryon Winn). Combinations of heavy industrial sounds and bass-heavy hip-hop music (sound design by Karin Graybash) occasionally fill the theater.

The characters establish a playful affection that gradually becomes tested by the growing threat that they may lose their jobs. “You never know if you will be the next person out there (without a job),” warns Reggie, while Dez fears becoming one of the “Assembly line ghosts.” Faye worries about being left with only an exposed and vulnerable “soul” while Shanita fears sacrificing her pride to take some lesser job.

Toting the accoutrements of factory work and dressed for tough, repetitive  labor (costumes designed by Kathleen P. Brown), the players each gave distinctive but uniformly compelling performances on opening night.

Olivia Williams became Faye, scarred by a tough life but still able to offer let’s-get-things-straight wisdom when pressed. Jeanlouis’ Reggie was a family man whose careful manner revealed a (not too) tough love for the others. Pierce had Dez brimming with youthful energy and frustration for having to wait to find out his professional fate. Folami Williams gave her Shanita a sweet centeredness that believably garnered affection from the others, including romantic overtures from Dez.

Director Jade King Carroll brings out all the right points of social observation within this engaging play while keeping to the author’s focus on why we should care about the many good people deeply affected by economic change.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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