Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth is the story of the universal family, beset by war and catastrophes but enduring despite all. In a way, The Skin of Our Teeth (written in 1942) is a companion piece to Wilder’s sweet, elegiac play, Our Town (1938), the story of the Gibbs and Webb families in a small town in New Hampshire.
The difference is that The Skin of Our Teeth is barmy, bizarre and vaudevillian, rather than sweet and elegiac. Remy Bumppo Theatre’s new production of The Skin of Our Teeth displays Wilder at his most delightfully daft, taking full advantage of the prescient story of man surviving environmental disaster, a refugee crisis and endless war.
The Antrobus family—father George (Kareem Bandealy), mother Maggie (Linda Gillum)., and children Gladys (Kayla Raelle Holder) and Henry (Matt Farabee)—may seem like a typical family living in suburban New Jersey. Father works in the city inventing the alphabet and the wheel. Mother shoos dinosaurs out of the front yard. Henry has the unfortunate habit of throwing stones and oops, his name used to be Cain. Holding everything together or not is the talkative maid Sabina (a sparkling performance by Kelly O’Sullivan).
But the family faces problems. The country has just survived a depression and now a wall of ice is moving down from the north. And it’s the coldest day of the year in August. A hearth in the middle of the living room floor burns fitfully and the family is out of kindling, now tossing bits of furniture into the fire. The pet dinosaur (Kristen Magee) and mammoth (Annie Prichard) are keeping warm in the living room. Refugees from the ice are at the door, seeking food and warmth and the Antrobuses take them in and provide coffee and sandwiches.
An announcer (Prichard) opens act one with news announcements such as “The sun rose this morning at 6:32am, according to Mrs. Dorothy Freeman of Freeport, Long Island,” and notes that the end of the world has been postponed for 24 hours. During acts one and three, set in the Antrobus home, Sabina acts as a sort of host and MC, while she performs her housekeeping duties. There is a lot of fourth-wall breaking in this play, including appearances by the Stage Manager (Peter A. Davis) to create order or make announcements.
Act two is set at the annual convention of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans. Mr. Antrobus has been elected president and makes an inaugural address. A Cassandra-like fortune teller (Charin Alvarez) warns of the coming doom. Storms, hurricanes, floods, fires, the end of the world and a bingo game ensue. Act three resembles our modern era. The long war has ended and the Antrobuses are back at home and so is Sabina. The family is tattered and scarred but soon gets back to some semblance of normal. Sabina says, “That’s all we do. Always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again.”
Playwright Wilder wrote this play about an apocalypse, at the beginning of what appeared to be an apocalypse (World War II) and he was especially prescient about our current climate disaster and immigration issues. The Skin of Our Teeth is structured as a “pattern plot,” a device favored by some absurdist playwrights. The same action occurs again and again, as if we are on a treadmill. Plays like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Ionesco’s Rhinoceros are other examples. The frequent references to biblical tragedies and antediluvian times are comic riffs on the apocalypse theme.
Director Krissy Vanderwarker has done a splendid job of choreographing the madness, from tragedy to burlesque comedy. Most of the performances are excellent, with O’Sullivan as Sabina, Linda Gillum as Mrs. Antrobus, and Alvarez as Esmeralda, the fortune teller, being examples. Kayla Raelle Holder also did a fine job as Gladys on the evening I saw the play, filling in for Leea Ayers.
Yeaji Kim’s scenic design is transformed from the Antrobus suburban home to an Atlantic City convention center and back again; her projections add a great deal to the design. Stephen Ptacek is responsible for the original music and sound design. Mieka van der Ploeg created the costuming, including the adorable pet dinosaur and mammoth costumes.
Remy Bumppo’s The Skin of Our Teeth runs 2 hours, 15 minutes, with two intermissions, and continues through November 12 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Performances are Thursday-Sunday with Wednesday performances on October 25 and November 2. Buy tickets for $42.50-$52.50 online or by calling 773-404-7336.