You know things are going to start getting weird when the woolly mammoth and the dinosaur show up at the front door.
Indeed, Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth may be a classic, but it’s one that also defies simple synopsis. Sure, it’s the story of the Antrobus family, with a working father, devoted mother, and two rambunctious children. But when you throw in the fact that this couple has been married for several millennia, the father has invented everything from the wheel to the alphabet, and the group has seen challenges no less daunting than walls of ice and catastrophic, Biblical floods, then the ambitious, allegorical scope of this 1942 play becomes quite apparent.
Wilder’s dark comedy was groundbreaking for its time, using radical techniques that today feel familiar (breaking the fourth wall to address the audience and acknowledge that yes, this is a play that’s being performed right now, even interrupting the action onstage at times, to name one).
A play that spans across eras (in this case, a different one each act) is no easy feat to stage. Constellation Theatre Company’s set designer A.J. Guban’s work here is as remarkable as any of the show’s performances, and the stagehands have their hands full during the play’s brief intermission, hoisting a hefty stone-looking bookshelf with stained glass window panes to the rafters to make way for the show’s Atlantic City boardwalk approximation. It’s quite an impressive transition, and the team has only seconds to switch things back for Act 3, set in the Antrobus household, now shattered by the damages of war. Speaking of impressive, those human-sized hulking, papier mache-looking dino and mammoth are quite the sight to behold, each embodied by a puppeteer lugging his way across the stage for laughs.
The Antrobus family may be the focus of The Skin of Our Teeth — particularly arresting performances come from Lolita Marie as the formidable Mrs. Antrobus and Dallas Tolentino as Henry, a son with violent tendencies whose real name is proooobably Cain, despite his parents’ efforts to conceal that fact.
But the person guiding the audience through this confusing, compelling world is Sabina (the sassy, sympathetic Tonya Beckman), a woman whose life is inexorably entwined with the family, sometimes as the maid, in other eras as a potential foil to the Antrobus’s marriage. Several supporting actors, from Colin Connor to Natalie Cutcher, get a brief chance to shine in a funny, meta bit, where the play’s stage manager realizes several performers have been taken ill and hastily assigns behind-the-scenes players to enact lines during a poignant closing scene.
The Skin of Our Teeth
closes February 18, 2018
Details and tickets
The events of 2017 have seemed to spike even more of an interest in post-apocalyptic, didactic material in local directors, including, in this case Mary Hall Surface, which perhaps is not surprising. In particular, The Skin of Our Teeth seems interested in what happens to those who stand by to witness a world gone to pieces.
Sabina embodies this as the play draws to a close, telling Mr. Antrobus that she’s right there behind him if he sees any way forward from the madness of the world, but for right now, all she really wants is to go to the movies. Her desperation is understandable, but Wilder has words of warning for those who shut their eyes against making an effort to improve the world around them, even in less dire circumstances. “When you’re at war, you think about a better life,” observes Mr. Antrobus, also near the play’s conclusion. “When you’re at peace, you think about a more comfortable one.”
The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Mary Hall Surface. Scenic and Lighting Designer: A.J. Guban. Costume Designer: Frank Labovitz. Sound Designer Justin Schmitz. Puppet Designer: Matthew Aldwin McGee. With Tonya Beckman, Lolita Marie, Steven Carpenter, Dallas Tolentino, Malinda Kathleen Reese, Gerrad Alex Taylor, Colin Connor, Ben Lauer, Jenna Berk, Lilian Oben, Mary Miller-Booker, Christopher Gillespie, and Natalie Cutcher. Produced by Constellation Theatre Company. Review by Missy Frederick.