Theater

Three castastrophes and sixty years later, The Skin of Our Teeth still has bite

It isn't strange that in 1942 a major American playwright would be concerned with the possible extinction of humanity and pondering what it would take to save the human race, but it is odd that Thornton Wilder chose to do all of this in a comedy. Luckily, The Skin of Our Teeth doesn't feel at all dated today, and the ideas still resonate. As the cheeky maid, Sabina, and the Antrobus family — along with their pets, a small dinosaur and a sweet-natured woolly mammoth — worry about a wall of ice moving slowly and threateningly toward their New Jersey house, we in the audience are surely thinking about the world's vanishing ice caps and shrinking rivers. Antrobus son Henry (aka Cain) represents the narcissism and inextinguishable rage that drive humans to war and acts of murder. Living in the first decade of the 21st century, we know Henry in all his myriad manifestations, from Osama bin Laden to our own country's apocalyptic right, already urging the populace to take up arms against the government. We've seen Henry's face, too, in the self-pity-besotted killers of Columbine and the half-dozen crazed shooters who followed them.

Wilder's play gives us three acts and three earth-threatening catastrophes: first the ice age, then Noah's flood, and finally an unnamed seven-year war. These huge events are refracted through the lens of conventional suburban America, with all kinds of anachronisms and parachronisms prancing through the text. Antrobus and his wife (her first name is apparently "Mrs.") play entirely conventional domestic roles: He rules the household when he's not inventing the wheel, the alphabet and beer, and she takes credit for gussets, seams and frying food in oil. Still, the strength and longevity of their marriage represents the bedrock on which the world can be rebuilt again and again. Daringly for his era (although the techniques are commonplace now), Wilder played around with linear logic and our sense of reality, and also with the division between art and life. The fourth wall is breached several times: Sabina stops the action to tell us how much she loathes the script, or to summarize a scene she doesn't feel like acting out. The stage manager comes on more than once to moderate an argument or deal with a glitch.

The Skin of Our Teeth is a gutsy choice for the Aurora Fox, and despite a few overly twitchy performances at the periphery of the action, the company pulls it off with honor. This is due in large part to the depth of John Arp's performance as Antrobus, whom he presents as a man who can be alternately terrifying and cuddly, a profound thinker or an idiotically indulgent and overprotective father to his little girl. Arp meets his acting match in Billie McBride, who makes Mrs. Antrobus less a mindlessly traditional helpmeet than a woman so intent on protecting her family and so strong in her beliefs that she can withstand almost anything. "I can starve," she remarks calmly at one point. "I've starved before. I know how." Misha Johnson is funny as spoiled daughter Gladys, and touching in the final act. Ben Dicke makes Henry appropriately creepy — you can imagine how this character's hand would feel if you had to shake it, the unnerving bonelessness and the hot dampness of the palm — and he builds to a powerful outburst toward the end. Sabina is supposed to represent the eternal temptress, from Lilith to Helen of Troy, but Megan Van de Hey makes her tough and funny rather than sexy, which changes the meaning and contour of the play in ways both good and bad. Van de Hey is, as always, a vital and watchable presence, though the seduction routine of the second act doesn't quite come off. And in the last act, she enters combat-ready and dressed in camouflage, when I'd always assumed that Sabina survived the war in the time-honored way of such women: whoring for soldiers.

The script gets a bit preachy at times, as when Antrobus, attempting to summon the heart to rebuild his home for a third time, invokes a line of great thinkers and writers, but I think it could have worked if director Bev Newcomb-Madden had asked some of the actors speaking these lines to think a little more deeply about what they meant. With the apocalypse now and forever looming, we need all the wisdom we can gather — including the still-fresh insights of this intriguing play.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman