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THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH

Bailiwick Repertory

My wife Beth's pregnant with our second child. She's coming to the end of her first trimester, which means she's been nauseous and I've been miserable for a few months now. It hasn't been pleasant. We thought she was over the worst of it, though, so we planned to have dinner and see the Bailiwick Repertory's production of The Skin of Our Teeth together.

Silly us. Beth started getting queasy in the car on the way to the restaurant. Eating didn't help. She ended up taking herself home, while I went on to the theater to see Thornton Wilder's inspirational play about the human race and what it means to live. If anybody'd asked me just then, I could've told them what it means to live. I would've talked about nausea. It wouldn't have been pleasant.

Wilder, of course, wasn't having any of that. Written and first produced during the early years of World War II, The Skin of Our Teeth has the earnest good cheer of a morale-booster comedy, the smile-through-your-tears buoyancy of wartime songs like "We'll Meet Again" and "When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)."

It's the tale of George Antrobus, Mr. Humanity, and how he weathers various storms--both literal and metaphoric. Antrobus is the inventor of the wheel, president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals. He owns a house in Jersey. He works hard, loves a good book, and isn't above goosing the maid. He's got an indomitable wife named Maggie, an awkward daughter named Gladys, and a hateful son named Henry, also known as Cain. He tries to keep an eye on Henry.

George and his family go through hell--or everything short of it--in the course of three acts. They shiver through the Pleistocene Era, trying to stave off the glacier in their front yard. They catch the last ark out of Atlantic City, at the start of the Great Flood. And when a devastating war finally ends, they climb up out of their cellar or limp in from the front lines, and get ready to rebuild.

They're always rebuilding. The Skin of Our Teeth is a series of catastrophes punctuated, in accordance with the grammar of optimism, by a series of affirmations. It's a sustained "sis boom bah" for the human race. I always picture this play with a crooked smile on its face.

You'd suppose all this positive thinking would get tedious after a while--especially for those of us with nausea in our hearts. But it doesn't, thanks mostly to Wilder's formal and philosophical playfulness. His intense devotion to the ridiculous. Affirmations notwithstanding, The Skin of Our Teeth is full of absurdity and satire, some of it downright savage. The elder Antrobuses' relationship with their children, especially, bounces back and forth between parental affection and a sort of slapstick rage. Even their endearments have a tart, slightly Medean edge to them. George calls Gladys his "little weasel," and bats Henry around just to get the boy's attention. Maggie goes into a violent frenzy whenever the kids threaten to displease daddy. No wonder Henry's antisocial.

There's a great and famous playfulness to the structure, as well. The Skin of Our Teeth is set up to be a veritable Mardi Gras of anachronisms. Dinosaurs curl up around a suburban fireplace, Lilith's incarnated as a beauty queen, news flashes document the Ice Age. Actors in the cast play actors in the cast, throwing tantrums or coming down with food poisoning. The script stops, starts, doubles back, comments on, and even gossips about itself with a bland equanimity.

All of which made the play rather revolutionary, in its pleasant way and time. Stuck smack dab in the chronological middle between Pirandello and Eugene Ionesco, Wilder's technique here absorbs one and anticipates the other. The very first lines spoken by Sabina, the Antrobuses' maid--"Oh, oh, oh! Six o'clock and the master not home yet. Pray God nothing serious has happened to him crossing the Hudson River. If anything happened to him, we would certainly be inconsolable and have to move to a less desirable residence district"--sound like they were lifted straight out of The Bald Soprano.

And so, in short, the play's not tedious. Neither is the Bailiwick production, directed by Tom Mula, who's the perfect choice for material like this. As playful as the playwright, but solidly efficient as well, Mula's able to splice in some anachronisms of his own--including an "appearance" by Vanna White--without getting too cute about it. At once a creative and astringent force, he can walk the line between Wilder's optimism and his absurdity.

Mula also works well with his large cast, getting remarkable performances out of the Antrobuses: Colleen Kane as the screechy, resentful, but steadily maturing Gladys; Ramsay Midwood as the punky, increasingly dangerous Henry; Jackie Samuel as the warmhearted, hard-nosed, tunnel-visioned Maggie; and especially Ken Miller as an ardent, weak, triumphantly normal George. Kathy Scambiatterra's a funny prig as Sabina.

The Skin of Our Teeth is passe in a lot of ways. What once seemed like a forward-looking style is more or less familiar now--and more or less clearly indebted to innovators in Europe, like Pirandello and Brecht. What once must've seemed like a sophisticated view of women in society comes off now as sweet, well intended, and old-fashioned.

But it's the optimism that's really hard to swallow. Wilder's insistence on rebuilding, keeping your nerve, and carrying on can't help but ring hollow in these plague years, these years of thinning ozone and SDI, thirtysomething, or whatever apocalypse you want. Hope seems inappropriate when a true believer like Wilder sticks it there in front of you and makes you say yes or no. Still, the fact is, he's right. It's only pragmatic to insist on yes--because most of us are going to say yes sooner or later, despite the romance and artfulness of no. I mean, after all: here we are, Beth and I, with our first-trimester nausea and misery and misgivings about the world. But when it comes down to it we're having a baby, aren't we?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.

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