The set-up: How much poorer would the American theater be without the riches of Thornton Wilder? A world without Our Town or The Matchmaker is unthinkable. A place without The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) would be darker still.
What a unique, spectacular view this play presents. The flip side to his bleak masterpiece Our Town, Wilder called Skin a "fantastic comedy," and it's nothing less than the history of mankind done up as vaudeville, sketch comedy, theater of the absurd, and heartbreaking family drama.
Wonderfully goofy and beautifully enlightening, it switches mood within a sentence, turning dark and brooding, then comically silly, ultimately inspiring and uplifting. Skin catches you up with brilliant theatrical strokes as it breaks the fourth wall, never letting us forget we're watching something artificial, but then Wilder's somewhat one-dimensional characters suddenly become the voice of all of us struggling to make sense of the world, and tears well up in our eyes. It's a Wilderean tour de force, a magnificent, intimate epic. This play is everything a play should be.
At its premiere, it befuddled and angered some audience members and most critics with its quirky, anachronistic, time-bending allegory, but had a healthy run of almost 400 performances. The star marquee names of Frederic March and Tallulah Bankhead, as George Antrobus and sexy maid Sabina, certainly helped boost sales. After Our Town (1938), you'd think the public would know what to expect from idiosyncratic Pulitzer Prize-winner Wilder: something different, amazing and amusing. It's all that, and more. Skin won Wilder his third Pulitzer. It's a touchstone of American drama. Wilder said the play was the most difficult to write of anything he created, but the play flows like a symphony, repeating themes and then exploding into star bursts of variations, all while showing us distinctly which instruments carry the melody. It's a tune we can all hum.
The execution: We're in Excelsior, New Jersey at the home of George and Maggie Antrobus (Wade Gonsoulin and Carol Davis). The house in in an uproar awaiting dad's arrival, while outside the ice age approaches ominously, threatening the known world. Sassy maid Sabina (Autumn Woods) has let the fire go out, but she, turning to address us, says she hates this play and doesn't understand what is going on.
Children Henry and Gladys (Giovanni Sandoval and Annabelle Dragas Xanthos), like children everywhere are rebellious and somewhat dangerous - Henry is too quick with his slingshot and Gladys continually pulls her dress up, much to the chagrin of proper Maggie, who's attempting to keep up appearances even though the walls of her house are pushed in by the encroaching wall of ice. The wind howls and wails of torment are heard from the people pleading for warmth and shelter as they stick to the sidewalk outside.
George arrives from work with his new invention, the wheel, another contraption much like his alphabet and multiplication tables from earlier, which doesn't seem to have any use right now. He brings with him Moses and Homer and the Three Muses, and everybody, including the family pets, a dinosaur and woolly mammoth (deliciously daft), sits around the dwindling fire. The mammoth moves his trunk close to the hearth to keep warm. Sabina has had enough of this struggle for survival, she's giving her two-week notice, but we know she's done this before and isn't going anywhere.
Act II brings the Great Flood while the family attends the annual Atlantic City convention of the Fraternal Order of Mammals. Sabina, in her other guise as life force, attempts to seduce George once and for all, but the weather takes a very nasty turn. Herding animals onto a nearby boat in the harbor, the family flees another catastrophe.
Act III, darker and chillingly surreal, brings The Great War and its aftermath to the struggling family. Gladys has had a baby, and Henry, more lost and nihilistic than ever, has fought for the enemy. His confrontation with George is the play's most engrossing sequence, full of scalding personal family drama the likes of which hearken to the greatest in O'Neill and forward to Arthur Miller. But the Antrobus family - like all of us, Wilder implies - carries on, it's all the human race can do; it's the only thing they can do. Picking up his precious books scattered about, George will begin again. There's much to save. That's when Sabina begins dusting the house like she did at the start of Act I, and the play starts over. She sends us home, telling us the play's not finished.
Director Kathy Drum begins the play on a frenetic high with blasting sound effects, characters screaming to be heard, and frantic activity all over the stage. It's an inauspicious introduction - along with John Carmona's bumbling announcer, who trips and flails and obviously has not committed his lines to memory - and we fear poor Wilder will be run down before the ice floes get him, but the actors take over quickly, smooth out the rough spots, and allow Wilder to take center stage.
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Gonsoulin and Davis give the Antrobuses a warm embrace; he, harried and anxious to move on; she, patient but never quite running out of steam. They make an inviting Man and Woman, Husband and Wife, or Adam and Eve. Sandoval and Xanthos are exceptional as the kids, especially Sandoval in his Act III breakdown and repentance scene. He's on fire, scorching his father and bringing the play to heartbreaking life. As eternal temptress Sabina, Woods, with cascading auburn locks and figure to entice, certainly looks the part of a Biblical Lilith, ready to pounce in any era. Her exasperated comic asides to the audience, usually raking the author over the coals for his obtuseness, are true highlights among a play filled with so many others. Also spicing up the cast are Renata Santoro Smith as a Cassandra-like fortune teller on the Atlantic City boardwalk; Brendis O'Sullivan as an overworked stage manager; Andrew Nurre as the Telegraph Boy; while Ian Collison, Scott McWhirter, Judith Mallerne, Rosangela Nurre, Dennis Porsnuk, Cheryl Tanner, Barrett White, and John Zipay round out the ensemble.
Within the limited confines of Theatre Southwest, Drum's set design is a dream: a cartoon backdrop of snow-encrusted windows, with gobs of books, tomes, and volumes lining the edge of the platformed stage. There are no slide projections, as in Elia Kazan's original production, and the house doesn't fall apart as the ice closes in, but we don't miss the lavishness; Wilder's text takes care of that, as does Josh Tiberius Baker's impressive lighting design, and his sound design, too, once it's toned down after that initial ear-splitting rush. The costumes by Rosangela Nurre and Melinda Beckham are either shabby chic, apt, or, in Sabina's wardrobe, sulky and seductive. Theatre Southwest always does much with very little.
The verdict: For those who only know Wilder from his gentle, but ebon-tinged, Our Town, Skin will be mind-blowing. It's like nothing in the rep: a real original and one-of-a-kind. Written during the opening months of WW II, when no one knew what the outcome would be, The Skin of Our Teeth is a glorious psalm to the abiding perseverance of man. He's not always good or noble, or even smart, but there's something intrinsic in him to keep going forward, no matter what horrors befall him. It's that constant momentum, Wilder trumpets, that will ultimately save humanity from itself. Go, see mankind triumph. Theatre Southwest supplies some heavenly music.
The Skin of Our Teeth continues through March 14 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. Purchase tickets online at www.theatresouthwest.org or call 713-661-9505. $17.