Thornton Wilder liked to tell the story about how cab drivers said they prospered during the original Broadway run of The Skin of Our Teeth because of all the baffled theatergoers fleeing at intermission. One of the play’s main characters, Sabina, complains early on that "the author hasn’t made up his silly mind as to whether we’re all living back in caves or in New Jersey today."
Between its nebulous chronology, simultaneous activity in multiple places, and mix of narration, dialogue and asides, The Skin of Our Teeth has always been a challenge. So it’s remarkable a low-budget troupe working in a church auditorium could mount such a polished production.
In staging this allegorical, time-tripping comedy/drama in which actors step out of character to comment on the process and content of the production, director Robert King and his design team reconfigured the performance space into a hybrid of a three-ring circus and a theater-in-the-round; they proved equally inventive in outfitting this play that includes everything from slide projections to a dinosaur.
Wilder won his third Pulitzer Prize (after The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town) for this homage to the human race. The main characters are a 20th-century nuclear family—Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, their son and daughter, and the maid Sabina—but Wilder takes them through such events as the Ice Age, biblical times, the invention of the wheel, ancient Greece, the Great War, even a beauty pageant in Atlantic City. Their experiences represent the range of human potential—for genius, love, envy, betrayal, destruction and, most importantly, survival.
The epoch-spanning action and meta-theatrics played out on two stages across the room from each other, with ramps sloping down from them toward a central walkway that provided additional performance space (the audience was seated on either side of the area between the two raised stages). Nothing in the props or costumes looked like a cheap substitute, and the show didn’t suffer even when these elements were eliminated altogether: Instead of wearing costumes, actors used imitative sounds and movements to portray animals in a vividly choreographed replication of the boarding of the Ark.
It took a stupendous ensemble effort to proceed so briskly and lucidly. Everyone in the cast—lead actor or bit player—effectively deployed whatever emotions, physicality or quirk was needed to bring this gallery of archetypes, mythical figures, and extinct beasts to life. While such parts as a mammoth, a Muse, and the wardrobe mistress are small, these hyperreal characters are what make The Skin of Our Teeth unique, so they’re no less significant than the meaty Antrobus and Sabina roles. Perhaps most crucial to the company’s success, the performances and all other aspects of the production reflected both a "let’s put on a show" enthusiasm and a solemn reverence for Wilder’s messages, which take on special poignancy in the wake of September 11. "Every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger," Mr. Antrobus concludes. "All I ask is the chance to build new worlds…"
(With Ben Sweetwood, Janet Luhrs, Jennifer Winegardner, Tonya Wathen, AJ Garrett, Tim Washer, Julia Sansevere, Zack Kron, Joe Cooper, Marc Balfour, Jessica Carmona, Heidi Landis, Anne Campbell, Luciana Canton, Tom Crowfis, James Pero, Julie Voshell, Maureen Daly, Michael Leforce, Katherine Harned, Hanja Rakoto, and Betsy Ross. Sets, Eun-Chung Yoon; costumes, Mary Duffy; lighting, Pamela Kupper.)
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Copyright 2002 Adrienne Onofri