Famous writers go in and out of fashion, but rarely with the frequency and extremes we see in reaction to Thornton Wilder. Since his heyday in the 1930s and ’40s—a period during which he won two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama—one generation finds Wilder old fashioned, verbose, sentimental—while another is astonished at his modern-ness and incandescent sense of hope amidst the darkest circumstances.
Sometimes, it’s a particular production that ushers in this change in perception—director David Cromer’s 2009 boutique reinvention of Our Town brought Wilder a new generation of fans. More often, though, a cultural shift gives us a renewed appreciation of his prescience.
Given our grim current political landscape, it was inevitable that an imaginative theater company would look to The Skin of Our Teeth, Wilder’s 1942 play that posits the end of the world showing up at a suburban doorstep. Set in the mythic town of Excelsior, New Jersey, Wilder’s sprawling, epic work continually pushes beyond realism. It’s a magnificent problem play, one that’s impossible to categorize, though the subtitle of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—a Gay Fantasia on National Themes—almost fits (all except the gay part, anyway).
We’re fortunate that the current Skin of Our Teeth revival landed in the hands of director Arin Arbus—and at Theatre for a New Audience, where the resources (including a cast of 35 actors!) are considerable. At least as important is the imaginative and loving approach to this difficult, even impossible script. The resulting production is flawed—for me, key elements of Wilder’s tone are sometimes missing—but I’m very grateful to have seen it.
Some problems are unavoidable in a play whose themes have absolutely stood the test of time, but whose style and reference points are now part of the distant past. When Skin of Our Teeth premiered in 1942—directed by Elia Kazan with a cast that included (hold onto your hats) Tallulah Bankhead, Frederic March, Florence Eldridge, Montgomery Clift, Florence Reed, and E. G. Marshall—the large-scale, family-life-at-home play was an American staple. I’ve wondered if Skin of Our Teeth is Wilder’s satiric riff on You Can’t Take It With You, Kaufman and Hart’s mega-hit that premiered five years before. In any case, I think that’s the tone Wilder wanted to establish at the start of the first act—sweet, funny family comedy that, on initial glance, felt comfortable and familiar.
From there, of course, Skin of Our Teeth unravels—it’s not long before a dinosaur and a mammoth are making themselves at home in the living room, and we grow suspicious about the Antrobus family’s troubled son, Henry. But Skin of Our Teeth needs to begin with at least a superficial connection to a real, recognizable world.
In Arbus’s production, there isn’t much of that. The Antrobus home is a life-sized playhouse, with a maid (Sabina, the Bankhead role) looking here like a whimsical take on an 1890s doll (or a character from Beauty and the Beast). Throughout the show, the imagery grows more fantastical. Some of Wilder’s references are replaced with more contemporary ones Aladdin, the musical rather than Peg O’ My Heart) that run far afield of his world, though they will resonate with younger audiences.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with some of this—the play is unspecific about its time period, and certainly invites, even demands, a level of absurdism.
But in the midst of so much almost carnivalesque imagination, something of Wilder’s sense of humanity in peril gets lost. For example, the excellent program notes quote Edward Albee, describing a moment in Skin of Our Teeth that always brings him to tears— Mrs. Antrobus, searching for Henry during the Great Flood, calls out, “Cain! Cain!” I remember that scene as unforgettable in a long-ago television version with Helen Hayes, whose low intoning of the name sounded almost like moaning. Here, actress Kecia Lewis’s cries are nearly covered by the hubbub of noisy stage activity. (Elsewhere, Lewis is terrific in a formidable, more serious reading of the role than I’ve seen before.)
Still, there are lovely, memorable things throughout Arbus’s production (skip the remainder of this paragraph if you’re planning to see the show and want to be surprised). They include the Act I arrival of refugees, who roam through the theater en masse in a sequence that could hardly be more poignant or timely. Act II has a terrific performance by Mary Lou Rosato of the boardwalk fortune teller in Act II. And throughout there’s the Sabina of Mary Wiseman, who was so sensational in Soho Theatre’s An Octoroon, which I saw in this same theater. Wiseman is similarly characterful here, and her distinctive red hair and pale prettiness is ideal, though the production’s lack of specific tonal focus leaves her sometimes seeming in a world of her own.
There are fine things in Act III also, though I think it gets off to rocky start, and lacks the sense of post-apocalyptic desolation that the play really calls for. But even when I question some of the directorial choices, Wilder always comes through. For me, the heart-breaker in Skin of Our Teeth comes shortly before the end, when Sabina asks Mr. Antrobus if she might keep one beef stock cube left from a bag she hoarded: she wants to use it for her ticket to the local movie theater, which has just reopened and in lieu of money—which nobody has—they are accepting “anything you can give them.” That moment certainly lands here, and Wiseman is exceptionally touching.
It’s axiomatic in the theater that there’s no such thing as a perfect production—especially in the case of an imperfect play. Then again, I’ve never been much interested in perfection. What you have here is a gripping, entertaining realization of gloriously untamable play. Still, I wish that Skin of Our Teeth—an allegory and a fable for sure—didn’t look quite so allegorical as it does here.
The Skin of Our Teeth plays through March 19. For more information, visit the Theatre for a New Audience website.