Cataclysmic climate change, economic collapse, apocalyptic war . . . these are the challenges facing the characters in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, now receiving a beautifully molded production at the Artistic Home. First presented on Broadway in October 1942, just ten months after Pearl Harbor, this Pulitzer Prize-winning proto-absurdist comedy about the uncertain fate of the human race “was written on the eve of our entrance into the war and under strong emotion,” Wilder said, “and I think it mostly comes alive under conditions of crisis.” Today, the work seems all too timely, but also perplexing—more urgent than ever, yet less reassuring.
Set mostly in a pleasant, middle-class suburban home, The Skin of Our Teeth focuses on what a narrator describes as “a typical American family”—the Antrobuses of 216 Cedar Street, Excelsior, New Jersey. George Antrobus is an industrious inventor, his wife, Maggie, a dedicated homemaker. Their teenage son, Henry, is a rebellious troublemaker, but Maggie strives to shield him from his father’s unpredictable anger. Henry’s younger sister, Gladys, meanwhile, is the apple of daddy’s eye.
A typical American family, indeed, but also the archetype of the eternally endangered, eternally enduring human race. Wilder jumbles present and past, history and myth in this sometimes farcical allegory. Inventor of the wheel and the alphabet, George “was once a gardener,” we learn, “but left that situation under circumstances that have been variously reported.” In other words, he’s Adam, expelled from Eden under a cloud of scandal. Maggie—inventor of the apron—is Eve, and Henry is Cain, the world’s first murderer, with the mark on his brow to prove it. “Why can’t you remember to keep your hair down over your forehead?” Maggie chides her boy. “You must keep that scar covered up.”
The maid, Lily Sabina, is Lilith—the ultimate temptress, Adam’s rebellious first wife, and a relentless naysayer. “We came through the Depression by the skin of our teeth! One more tight squeeze like that and where will we be?” she laments. Lily Sabina even breaks character to address the audience directly, complaining about her role and the play’s heavy-handed symbolism. “The author hasn’t made up his silly mind,” she notes, “as to whether we’re all living back in caves or in New Jersey today.”
Over the course of three acts, the Antrobus clan faces down an ice age, a great flood, and finally a devastating conflict that pits George and Henry—civilization and savagery—against each other. It’s this last catastrophe that most severely threatens the Antrobuses, whose name is a play on anthropos, the Greek word for “human.” We’ll survive as long as men and women bond together and parents protect their children, Wilder suggests. But if the family crumbles, so will the human race.
Director Jeff Christian has sure-handedly guided a 12-member cast through drastic shifts in tone, from cartoonish freneticism to somber gravity, aided by designers Joseph Riley (set), Julian Pike (lights), Alyson Greaves (costumes), and Mikhail Fiksel and Miles Polaski (sound). The ensemble deftly negotiate what are in essence dual roles: they play both their characters and themselves—actors who gradually gain courage and strength by performing the play.
Written under the influence of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, The Skin of Our Teeth was considered avant-garde in its time. Now its Eurocentric view of civilization—grounded in Hellenistic philosophy and the Judeo-Christian tradition—makes it seem dated. At the end of the play George tells Maggie that “three things always went together when I was able to see things most clearly.” These are the “voice of the people in their confusion and their need . . . the thought of you and the children and this house. And . . . my books . . . voices to guide us, and the memory of our mistakes to warn us.” The books George cites include the Bible, of course, and also texts by Plato, Aristotle, and Spinoza. There’s no reference in the play to African, Asian, or Muslim culture—or to women as anything other than homemakers or home wreckers. Wilder’s portrait of a human race in crisis may seem especially pertinent just now, but his faith that Western philosophical and religious values will keep the family of man together looks dishearteningly parochial.