Vol. LXI, No. 49
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
DUTY OR DESIRE?: Is it Save the Family or Enjoy Yourself? George Antrobus (Sean Fennell) wavers between his wife (Ashley Johnson, left) and Sabina, the alluring Atlantic City beauty queen (Heather May, right), in Thornton Wilders Pulitzer Prize-winning The Skin of Our Teeth, currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus.
Sabina the maid breaks out of character early in the first act of The Skin of Our Teeth, steps through the invisible “fourth wall” of the suburban living room set, and directly addresses the audience: “I hate this play and every word in it. As for me, I don’t understand a word of it, anyway — all about the troubles the human race has gone through, there’s a subject for you. Besides the author hasn’t made up his silly mind as to whether we’re all living back in caves or in New Jersey, and that’s the way it is all the way through. Oh — why can’t we have plays like we used to have — good entertainment with a message you can take home with you?”
Thornton Wilder’s sprawling, 1943 Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomedy is not a traditional play. In addition to the unpredictable shenanigans of the high-spirited Sabina, who constantly breaks out of character to criticize the proceedings, the plot, though focused on the Antrobus family and set in New Jersey, leaps anachronistically back and forth through the history of humankind.
Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, by some measures a typical suburban couple, simultaneously embody Adam and Eve and all humanity. They keep a dinosaur and woolly mammoth as pets, and entertain such visitors as Moses, Homer, and the Muses, as the Ice Age threatens to destroy them all at the end of act one. At the end of act two the storm rages and the flood waters rise as the Antrobus family prepares to join all the other mammals in leaving Atlantic City, two by two, aboard what appears to be Noah’s Ark.
The third act reveals the end of a seven-year war, and the play concludes with a display of actors taking on the roles of the planets and the hours of the day as they deliver philosophical nuggets to the audience.
Rich in Biblical references, philosophy and ethics, The Skin of Our Teeth is all about the family, good and evil, the cycles of history, and the values and spirit that help humanity to survive. As Sabina in her opening monologue reminds us: “Don’t forget that a few years ago we came through the depression by the skin of our teeth! One more tight squeeze like that and where will we be?”
The Skin of Our Teeth was written during the dark days of World War II, but it transcends its few dated references to evoke a timeless appeal, paying tribute to core values of humanity and civilization — with a wild and whimsical dose of humor lest we start to take ourselves too seriously.
The Skin of Our Teeth plays December 6-8, at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturday. Call (609) 258-5155 for tickets or visit www.theatreintime.org for further information.
Crucial to the success of this ambitious, unwieldy, two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza are Theatre Intime’s three leading performers: Heather May as Sabina, Ashley Johnson as Mrs. Antrobus and Sean Fennell as Mr. Antrobus.
In a role played by the legendary Tallulah Bankhead in the original production, Ms. May has developed a delightfully vibrant and outspoken character. Constantly ready to talk back to her employers, to exchange remarks with the audience or to promote herself and her romantic prospects, Ms. May’s Sabina is funny and engaging. She is flawless in her comic timing and in character every second on stage. Though the plot focuses on the Antrobus family, it is Sabina — deftly wielding her wit, her parasol and her feather duster — who begins and ends the play, delivers frequent narrative commentary and infuses this show with energy. Why she and the two children have British accents remains a mystery, but not a significant problem, in this compelling production.
Ms. Johnson’s matronly Mrs. Antrobus provides a striking contrast and a worthy adversary to the alluring Sabina. Ms. Johnson is articulate and persuasive in fighting to hold onto her straying husband. Inventor of the apron and troubled mother of Henry (who apparently was named Cain before he killed his brother), she argues powerfully the case for family and domesticity. “Save the family!”
Caught between these two strong-willed women, Mr. Fennell’s George Antrobus, inventor of the wheel, the lever, the alphabet, and the multiplication tables struggles on, through depression and degradation, through the temptations of Miss Atlantic City 1942 and through a war in which he must do battle against his angry son. Mr. Fennell is a sympathetic protagonist and a strong stage presence in his widely ranging moods and eccentric behavior.
Gregor Schubert as the rebellious son Henry and Nushelle De Silva as the dutiful daughter Gladys provide strong support as they grow from young children to young adolescents and to adults in the final act. The flexible ensemble of eight ice age refugees in act one, frolicking Atlantic City conventioneers in act two, “actors” and hours and planets in act three — features Courtney Jones, Will Martinez, Bianca Mathabane, Mary Reid Munford, Timothy Pollio, Daniel Posen, Aaron Schneider, and Sara Shaw, with an effective cameo appearance by stage manager Laura Johnson. Ms. Munford as the wise fortune teller and Mr. Martinez as telegraph boy, guitar-strumming Homer, and amorous lifeguard, are particularly memorable.
Princeton University junior Shannon Lee Clair has directed with intelligence and flair, to create order amidst the chaos. There are one or two slow moments in the second and third acts, where perhaps both the text and the ensemble need trimming and focus, but Ms. Clair keeps the audience’s attention on the three protagonists, and the pace, for the most part, moves briskly.
The minimal, representational set, designed by Andrew Ferguson, is functional and effective in suggesting the Antrobus’ house in acts one and three and the Atlantic City boardwalk in the second act. Lighting by Mike Hasling and Michael Gordon is excellent in illuminating the disparate proceedings and significant stage areas, while also powerfully evoking the shifting moods throughout the play. A richly diverse array of costumes, designed by Ms. May and Elyse Powell, colorfully and effectively complement the characters and the other production elements.
Mr. Wilder, who received his M.A. from Princeton University in 1926 and taught French at the Lawrenceville School for several years in the 1920s before going on to teach literature and classics at the University of Chicago, also won Pulitzer Prizes for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) and his most famous Our Town (1939), but The Skin of Our Teeth, a flawed masterpiece, is perhaps his most ambitious undertaking.
This production brings out the best in its generous and quirky humor and its three fabulously idiosyncratic and vigorous main characters. As for the weighty moralizing and philosophy of the play, perhaps Sabina has the right idea after all: “We’ve rattled along hot and cold, for some time now, and my advice to you is not to inquire into why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.”
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