The Skin of Our Teeth

American Theater Company

By Adam Langer

You have to wonder, if Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning The Skin of Our Teeth were given its world premiere today, what audiences would think. Of course, plays these days hardly ever have three acts, and works with 36 characters are financially viable only when Andrew Lloyd Weber has scored them. If you could get past that, you’d still have to deal with the play’s style, structure, and scope. Part historical epic, part satire, part biblical allegory, part social commentary, part philosophical treatise, part riff on complacency in the American theater, this is an intellectually difficult, profoundly unconventional human comedy. Quite likely it would close in previews and be the subject of many scathing critiques. Perhaps Robert Brustein would give it its due in a lavish American Repertory Theatre production in Cambridge. Certainly it would go over better in Europe than here.

It’s hugely ironic that Wilder is considered a relic of an ossified American theater full of quaint charm and folksy wisdom when his writings, like Brecht’s, emphasize the need for theater to jar its audiences out of their middle-class slumber and, like Pirandello’s, experiment with theatrical form. Innumerable high school and grammar school productions of Wilder’s Our Town have undoubtedly played a role, connecting him not with his philosophy or the avant-garde style for which he was lambasted when that play premiered but with soda fountains, church choirs, Grover’s Corners, and a voice warbling “Pepperidge Farm remembers.” Wilder’s reputation has been further degraded by association with that grinning ghoul Carol Channing and Hello, Dolly!, the musical version of his The Matchmaker. (One shudders to think what Kander and Ebb might do to our impressions of this play.) Wilder’s actual thoughts about Main Street, USA, might have been best expressed in the screenplay for Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, which depicts the decidedly creepy underbelly of a town that could pass at first glance for Grover’s Corners.

With The Skin of Our Teeth–written in 1942 in anticipation of America’s entrance into World War II–it’s not quite so easy to dismiss Wilder as an antediluvian thinker. Sweeping from the dawn of the world to the eve of its destruction, the play almost seems to presage Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Its tone is ever shifting, its direction unpredictable, and its structure seemingly chaotic, more reminiscent of a three-ring circus than a three-act play: asked which author had had the greatest influence on the work, Wilder named James Joyce. Charting the human race’s pendular swings from creation to destruction and back again, the play finally produces the cautiously optimistic, compassionate, humanistic vision so characteristic of Wilder’s work.

The Skin of Our Teeth is set both in contemporary suburban America and in prehistoric times, primarily in the home of Mr. and Mrs. George Antrobus–who are somehow God, Adam and Eve, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs from Our Town all rolled into two. The play begins with the invention of the wheel and the alphabet, continues with the invention of gunpowder, and concludes with the invention of philosophy. The couple’s son, Henry–who throughout the play bears the mark of Cain on his forehead–is the personification of a playful mischief that’s inevitably transfromed into evil; their daughter, Gladys, suggests Henry’s flip side–the possibility for hope and rebirth. The 5,000-year journey of the Antrobus clan through war and natural disaster is watched over and commented upon by Sabina, who serves multiple functions. In the first and second acts she routinely disrupts the narrative and calls attention to the play’s theatricality. In the second act she also seduces Mr. Antrobus in the guise of a beauty pageant winner, becoming a temptress who’s equal parts Garden of Eden serpent and Helen of Troy. She introduces us to the play and its characters and then sends us home to contemplate what we’ve witnessed.

For those who’ve never seen The Skin of Our Teeth or who remember it only dimly from a PBS production, there’s a certain exhilaration to seeing Wilder’s work onstage. American Theater Company director William Payne has assembled a top-notch cast, and his orchestration of the play’s manic interactions is dead-on. Marguerite Hammersley brings considerable humor, charisma, and compassion to the role of Sabina, a part played on Broadway by Tallulah Bankhead. Deanna Dunagan is consistently sympathetic and grounded as Mrs. Antrobus, even when the events around her threaten to explode into manic vaudeville shtick. John Mohrlein may be a trifle bellicose as Mr. Antrobus–a role he performs with an occasionally shrill borscht belt zeal. But his lapses in credibility are made up for by Deborah Puette’s subtle take on Gladys and Andrew Micheli’s brash, earthy performance as Henry, a character who gives the play a very contemporary sensibility.

What’s problematic is the way Payne has updated and altered Wilder’s work, with results that range from the trivial and unobtrusive to the profoundly bizarre. Wilder’s newsreel-style “announcements,” which open the first two acts, have been turned into TV news broadcasts. And instead of setting the Antrobus home in Excelsior, New Jersey, Payne has placed it in Palatine, Illinois; the Hudson River is now the Des Plaines River, and so forth. These changes are essentially superfluous–they seem intended to produce easy laughs, not greater immediacy–and don’t detract from the overall impact.

But in order to deal with contemporary issues Payne has profoundly changed Wilder’s time periods. The first act, which Payne labels “The Ice Age,” takes place mainly in the 1950s, with Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus appearing as typical suburban parents in the Leave It to Beaver or Donna Reed Show mold. The second act, called “The Great Flood,” is set in the 70s and features wide ties and loud sport coats. Here Mrs. Antrobus’s ironic references to women’s suffrage suggest the 70s struggle for women’s liberation, while Sabina’s overt sexuality seems some sort of commentary on the way the sexual revolution undermined the American family. The final act, which Payne sets in the 90s after World War III, is rife with apocalyptic references presenting the world as it might be after a nuclear war or the ravages of global warming. But since Wilder was writing in response to a specific international crisis and ATC’s production is responding to a vague malaise, this change seems inadequately motivated.

Strangest, though, is the last image Payne chooses to present. Wilder ended his play with readings from Spinoza, Aristotle, and the Bible suggesting that the human spirit will survive even in the face of global destruction. Then Sabina steps forward to send the audience home: “The end of the play isn’t written yet. Mr and Mrs. Antrobus! Their heads are full of plans and they’re as confident as the first day they began–and they told me to tell you: good night.”

Payne’s production includes all these lines, but just before the lights go down we see Henry point a gun at Mr. Antrobus’s head. The effect is chilling, portending terror and doom. But it’s not in the spirit of what Wilder wrote. Imagine what you’d feel if the Stage Manager at the end of Our Town put a pistol to his head and fired just after saying “Eleven o’clock in Grover’s Corners. You get a good rest, too. Good night.”

“Perhaps we will survive and improve the world for our children,” Payne writes in his director’s note. But he seems utterly unconvinced of that, though his sensational ending is more flip, nihilistic posturing than a well-reasoned philosophical statement. It’s almost as if Payne has gone to the trouble of making The Skin of Our Teeth contemporary just to make Wilder out wrong, succumbing to the usual perception that he’s something of a Panglossian fuddy-duddy. Yet Wilder was no Norman Rockwell–he was a great philosopher, a fine dramatist, and a revolutionary artist. Maybe someday, when people take him for what he really was, they won’t feel the need to slam him for being old-fashioned.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kameron Flynn.