Thornton Wilder says humanity must go on in ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’
The ensemble / Ian Flanders

TOPANGA, Calif––Picture yourself in a comfortable middle-class home on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in Excelsior, New Jersey—during the Ice Age! You meet the standard nuclear family of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (Mark Lewis and Melora Marshall), son Henry (William Holbrook) and daughter Gladys (Gabrielle Beauvais), and a rambunctious sexy maid named Sabina (Willow Geer)—every respectable family has some household help, right? Wait a minute: Your home is not so comfortable because you’re freezing to death from the Ice Age, burning the furniture to stay warm. Even the dinosaurs and the woolly mammoth are trying to get inside for a bite to eat and a little heat. We all have the same basic needs.

That’s the first act of The Skin of Our Teeth (seen July 13), which takes place in Time: Immemorial. “What the end will be is still very much an open question,” it is stated. Act Two, after intermission, takes place during the time of the Biblical Flood during which the Antrobuses celebrate their 5000th wedding anniversary, and Act Three in the traumatizing 20th-century world of war. This satirical tribute to the indestructibility of the human race by Thornton Wilder is now playing at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum with performances through Sept. 29.

Written in 1942 in response to U.S. involvement in WWII, Wilder’s play was meant partly to assuage the public’s fears of worldwide destruction brought on by war, predicating a better world to come. It opened on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre and was an immediate smash hit, winning the 1943 Pulitzer Prize (Wilder’s third, after his 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and his 1938 play Our Town). Directed by Elia Kazan, it starred Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, Tallulah Bankhead and Montgomery Clift.

Several years earlier, in Our Town, Wilder stretched the bounds of theatrical convention, and went even further in his 1942 play. Baffled theatergoers didn’t know what to make of the cloudy chronology, simultaneous activity in multiple places, and mix of narration, dialogue and asides to the audience. Especially when Sabina expresses her discontent with her working conditions and addresses herself directly to the audience or to the unseen director of the play offstage, The Skin of Our Teeth has an almost Brechtian “alienation effect,” the actors, ignoring the “fourth wall,” presenting themselves frankly as actors in a play they themselves are not at all sure they understand. The play doesn’t get produced all that often because of these challenges. In some ways Wilder was “post-modern” before his time: His esthetic may be more accessibly grasped now than in 1942.

The Skin of Our Teeth is in the end, and through all the disruptions in family life caused by external circumstantial crises, an affirmation of the we-have-no-choice-but-to-get through-this determination of human beings to hang in there against all odds. At different moments it assumes the air of a comic-book telegraph synopsis of human life, with a nod to the Biblical family of Adam and Eve and their violence-prone son Cain, and also to burlesque and a great deal of physical humor. Both Homer and Moses make guest cameo appearances. An audience quickly learns to accept the play on its own quirky terms and go along for the wild ride through myth and history.

On the way we meet the epic range of human potential—for genius (the invention of the wheel, for example, or the alphabet), love (despite its many setbacks), envy, betrayal (marital and otherwise), destruction (climate and war) and, most important, survival. As they continue to live and rebuild in the face of adversity, they are proof, as Mr. Antrobus says—his name being of course a play on the Greek word for man, anthropos—that “living is struggle.” Before the final curtain, smart-assed Sabina assures us, “The end of the play isn’t written yet.”

“This play is about us, today,” notes director Ellen Geer. “The Antrobuses are refugees of the Ice Age (climate change), of Noah’s Flood (record-breaking, weather-related calamities and fires), and of war (which never seems to cease). Wilder said of his play, ‘It is most potent in times of crisis.’ Theatricum is mounting it for the third time—so I guess we are at another time of crisis, and plan to survive and land on our feet, just like the Antrobus family.”

From left, William Holbrook, Gabrielle Beauvais, Mark Lewis, Melora Marshall / Ian Flanders

Aside from the central Antrobus family we have Jonathan Blandino as the Announcer and Broadcast Official (more hints of Brechtian technique), and Earnestine Phillips as a Cassandra-like fortune teller (“No one can tell you the past, but I can tell the future”). The rest of the ensemble, donning costumes ranging everywhere from the aforementioned woolly mammoth to beauty contest hoochie-coochie girls, includes Dylan Booth, John Brahan, Matthew Domenico, Colin Guthrie, Margaret Kelly, Edison Lobos, Shane McDermott, Matthew Pardue, Dante Ryan, Gina Shansey, Sky Wahl, Isaac Wilkins and Woan Ni Wooi in elegantly coordinated motion.

Costume design is by Holly Hawk, lighting design is by Zach Moore, and sound design is by Grant Escandón. The prop masters are Danté Carr and Sydney Russell, and creature creation is by Puppet Time. Kim Cameron is the production stage manager.

The Skin of Our Teeth continues in repertory with about 10 more performances through Sept. 29. For a complete schedule and to purchase tickets, call (310) 455-3723 or visit www.theatricum.com. There is a Prologue (pre-show discussion) on Sat., Aug. 3 from 7 to 7:30 pm (included in ticket price). A Pay-What-You-Will performance takes place Fri., Aug. 23 at 8 pm. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga, midway between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley. Dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring a cushion for bench seating. Patrons are welcome to arrive early and picnic before a performance.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic.

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