Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth is a sprawling, ambitious piece of work aiming to be at once both now and then, here and there, always and everywhere. It is also a piece of meta-theatrical genius, even more so than Wilder’s earlier play, Our Town. I’ll assume you’re familiar with that, since you’re reading theatrical criticism by choice, but The Skin of Our Teeth, although also a Pulitzer Prize-winner, is less familiar to most people.
It’s also a lot more complicated. Wilder aims to take a “typical American family” and have them serve as representatives of families from the beginning of time to the present. As their maid, Sabina, says, “The author hasn’t made up his silly little mind whether we’re living in caves or today in New Jersey.” Sabina is here addressing the audience à la Our Town’s Stage Manager and she will continue to do so for the play’s duration. Where Wilder adapts this into an additional metatheatrical layer, though, is that Sabina, at this point, is addressing the audience not as Sabina, but as Mary Wiseman, the actor cast in the role in this specific production of The Skin of Our Teeth at Theatre for a New Audience. Mary Wiseman is in this moment playing a version of herself, the actress, who has stepped through the proscenium to explain the play. Several of the characters do this, including a chilling scene in the play’s final act. Reynaldo Piniella, playing the son, Henry Antrobus, has a breakdown and stops the play in a tense scene with his father. It is, of course, scripted, but Wilder is making a statement about relating art to life, about connecting the page to our personal experience.
The first act occurs with the family in a hybrid of caveman/ice age times and the present. They are hunkered in the house with a dinosaur and a wooly mammoth (Cait O’Connor’s whimsically designed puppets) and, somewhat reluctantly, accept a dizzying number of refugees (the cast, in total, numbers thirty-five and the gang’s all here) while a wall of ice keeps encroaching. Ms. Wiseman, the character, breaks the play as the refugees come into the Antrobus house because she, all of a sudden, understands this part of the play and wants to assure us, quite hollowly, that “the world’s not coming to an end.”
The second act occurs in a hybrid of turn-of-the-20th-century Atlantic City and the present, where the central family’s patriarch, George Antrobus (David Rasche), has risen to become president of the “Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans.” President Antrobus, though he is harmless, is the kind of demagogue we know all too well. Though this play was announced prior to last November’s election, it is hard not to find some proto-Trumpian logic in George Antrobus’ address to his fellow mammals: “In our memorial service yesterday we did honor to all our friends and relatives who are no longer with us, by reason of cold, earthquakes, plagues and…and…differences of opinion.”
The final act moves the action into a nonspecific time at the end of a great war with soldiers returning home and rejoining their families. It is not altogether pleasant, though, as wartime has altered the perspectives of the Antrobus family. George and Henry have taken opposing sides in the war and Henry returns to the homestead much decorated, but much reviled as well. Father and son cannot find common ground and the family is irreparably split. Wilder ends the play exactly as it began. Sabina steps forward and tells us the end of the play isn’t written and the actors “have to go on for ages and ages yet.”
This blending of period, location, and persona captures a wide range of American history in turn comical and poignant. We are constantly reminded that the Antrobus family is many thousands of years old – George and his wife, Maggie (Kecia Lewis), celebrate their 5,000th wedding anniversary in Act Two. By using the Antrobuses as a microcosm of mankind’s entire history, Wilder is also illuminating the present. For him, the present was 1942, but for us, it is, rather remarkably, still powerfully relevant in 2017. If The Skin of Our Teeth has anything to say, it is that history repeats itself; that we mammals, subdivision humans will keep doing the same things we have always done, but will hopefully move forward with more knowledge and an eye to the past.
Arin Arbus’ production for Theatre for a New Audience is notable for its inventiveness and its nimble negotiation of the play’s spiraling tone. The set by Riccardo Hernandez uses the Antrobus house as the location for all three acts, but the way the house breaks apart and comes together and sinks to the ground has to be seen to be truly appreciated for the wonder that it is. Arbus stages the actors in, under, and over this shifting playground in inspired configurations. The music by César Alvarez, while not entirely necessary, adds a wallop to the transition between Acts One and Two and to the full company number at the play’s close.
The size of this company is virtually unheard of in contemporary off-Broadway productions, but it is entirely necessary to the play’s storytelling. These people build the world in which the Antrobuses live. Particular standouts in the company include Kecia Lewis as the grounded Earth Mother, Maggie Antrobus. Lewis’ resonant speaking voice is authoritarian and no-nonsense. She delivers a beautiful monologue in Act Two about “all the things that a woman knows” and it is one of the production’s highlights. Also of note is Mary Wiseman as Sabina, and also as herself, crafting a character that is clearly not who she is, but that fills in the play-breaking asides with an uproarious brand of humor all her own.
If everyone is not delivering performances of this caliber, it hardly detracts from the powerful message the play is delivering. Thornton Wilder has written a play so different from any other play that, even three quarters of a century later, it feels daring and brave. The Skin of Our Teeth is an intelligent play and an intelligent, and immensely enjoyable, production.