The Skin of Our Teeth
by Thornton Wilder
Theatre UNB / English 2170
Memorial Hall, November 2001
The Skin of Our Teeth is one of those classic scripts that everybody knows about and remembers, and almost everybody remembers wrong. Thornton Wilder is thought of as the author of Our Town, which lives in the minds of people who care about drama as a kind of sentimental celebration of a Norman Rockwell vision of idyllic small-town America (that's wrong, too, of course), and The Skin of Our Teeth is thought of as a similarly sentimentalized ode to American grit and practical determination.
Both plays, as well, are seen as full of jokey and dated tricks played with theatrical conventions. Self-consciously, they remind us that it's a play, with actors stepping out of character to address the audience (and the lighting booth and the director), and regular reminders that we're sitting in the theatre watching some people struggle to put on a play -- a kind of Americanized, popularized version of, say, Brecht's very continental "epic drama," with its commitment to "estrangement" and rejection of illusion and naturalism.
A production like the one Len Falkenstein's English 2170 (with able assistance, clearly, from Theatre UNB, other drama students, and many others) mounted at Memorial Hall is capable of reminding us that the play, and Wilder, have much more to offer than that characterization would suggest. The Skin of Our Teeth has far more in common with European traditions of politically committed, artistically challenging theatrical exploration than we usually think. Jokey as it is, the repeated smashing of theatrical conventions -- which didn't go over very well with either the audiences or the companies of the early forties -- pushes us to think about ideas and values and assumptions in a powerful way. It's satire of the first rank, in fact, and hardly sentimental or conventional at all. What the characters in the play seem to stand for -- family values, hard work, conventional morality, faith in progress -- is not exactly what the play seems to be showing us.
The Theatre UNB production, while a bit ramshackle at times (it's very dangerous to do a play which wobbles in and out of conventions if you're not absolutely certain about when you're in and when you're out), gave us a serious, thoughtful (and funny) taste of the real power of Wilder's script. There were, of course, times when the large cast -- spread about the set and working behind the principal characters, creating, say, a decadent version of Atlantic City crossed with Sodom and Gomorrah -- didn't feel especially focused or disciplined. But on the whole the sense of the generalized and ambiguous sweep of Wilder's story ("the author hasn't made up his silly little mind whether we're living in caves or today in New Jersey," says Sabrina, our guide to this slapdash pastiche of evolution and human history) is strong -- just frenetic enough to hurry us along from being mammals among the dinosaurs to being a middle-class family clinging to its outmoded values in the face of decadence and war. And back.
The company copes very well with the almost insurmountable obstacle of Memorial Hall's raised stage, utilizing the whole space (for instance, after the first act the furnishings of the Antrobus living room are mostly taken out down the center aisle and through the house, and brought back in for the third the same way; and characters stepping out of the play often come down into the audience to plead with us for patience or tell us that the next scene really is too painful to play).
All the characters, of course, are cartoons at bottom. What is surprising, however, is that by the end we come to care about Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus as they celebrate their 5,000th anniversary and recognize that their ne'er-do-well son Henry (aka Cain, with the Mark clear on his forehead) is not only not going to grow up, but is responsible for most of the evil in the world. This is in large part a consequence of the way the two characters are played, by Clark Richards and Katie Mulholland. These are demanding roles, requiring the actors to maintain a consistent identity in widely varying situations (Antrobus addressing conventions, being a stuffy suburban father, and returning wounded and demoralized from the war; Mrs. Antrobus coping throughout with being a caricature of a '40s housewife, preoccupied with public respectability and domestic responsibility, and at the same time in many ways the heroine of the play, holding life together when everything collapses).
As demanding is the role of Sabrina, at the beginning (and at the end) the tempestuous domestic servant to the Antrobus family, and in between the temptress who almost destroys the family -- and, of course, humanity. Karen Lizotte is wonderfully energetic and vivacious in the role, and if occasionally it seemed she was just a little too up-tempo, in general she kept us engaged and sympathetic, especially as she stepped down of the stage to explain to us, for instance, that things are in a shambles backstage, or, at the end, that we're free to go on and have our lives but that the cast is unfortunately stuck in the unending cycle of disaster and recovery, collapse and patient beginning again, that the play returns to. (Antrobus invents the wheel, and between the acts Perry Como croons, "find a wheel, and it goes round and round . . . ")
Henry Antrobus, the figure of Cain, is a deeper challenge. Through the first two acts, his childish viciousness and troublemaking, his truculent waving of his slingshot around, seem (as, one thinks, Mrs. Antrobus might feel) more cute than dangerous, and Kurt Galley seemed to play him that way. Thus it's a surprise when in Act III he appears as the embodiment of militaristic, mindless violence, as a character right out of Brecht, the arrested 14-year-old with an AK-47 that we see so often on the TV news these days. I'm not sure that more threat earlier on might have made this transformation stronger, but in any case the final confrontation with the father was powerfully effective.
The large cast surrounding these principals (from the cuddly dinosaur and mammoth huddling near the fire as the ice age bears down on New Jersey, to the Atlantic City riffraff, to the survivors of whatever the current war is), all worked well to help us understand the deep ambivalence about "family values" and "progress" at the heart of the play. Loving your son is good, the play says, but he might just be Cain; inventing the wheel and the telegraph and the multiplication table are fine, but we just might wind up huddling in a bomb shelter or slaughtering children in the dark of a battlefield. Like many works written out of the dark disillusionment of the middle of the twentieth Century, The Skin of our Teeth says, like a character out of Beckett, "I can't go on. I'll go on." Thanks to Theatre UNB for reminding us that the dark times the world seems to be in now are hardly unprecedented.
One thing which is normally not mentioned in reviews, but which I want to commend Falkenstein and company on: the program for this production is valuable, useful and interesting. Work and thought went into it, and I believe audiences appreciate being taken seriously. I do, anyway.