A Walk on the Wilder Side
The Skin of Our Teeth
Directed by Jonathan Tolins
At the Loeb Mainstage
"EAT YOUR ice cream while it's still on your plate," Sabina the maid tells us early in Thornton Wilder's The Skin Of Our Teeth. And this would seem to be good advice to follow in a play that shows the cyclical and precarious nature of life at such a fast pace that the Ice Age, the Depression and the invention of the alphabet are simultaneous events.
After Harvard audiences have been Stopparded in our tracks and Sheparded nearly to our graves--with an occasional break for some off-beat Shakespeare en route--it's refreshing to see Wilder's pre-War, more-innovative-than-Beckett play on the Loeb Mainstage.
After an Ice-Age news bulletin that announces the sighting of a sunrise, we enter the scene with an introduction from Sabina (Kristin Gasser), who services the Antrobus family of Excelsior, New Jersey. As the too-big-for-her-britches and too-bright-for-her-job housekeeper warns us, this play makes no sense. "It can't even decide if we're living in caves or in New Jersey," she declares. Throughout the play, Sabina, portrayed with superb wit and giddiness by Gasser, continues to step outside of the drama and remind us that this is only a play.
The Antrobus family itself ought to be the ordinary nuclear unit except that Mrs. Antrobus (Rebecca Clark) has to remind Sabina to milk the pet mammoth, son Henry (Remo Airaldi) is 4000 years old and used to be called Cain, and Mr. Antrobus (Eric Oleson) comes home at night with his prototypical model for the wheel. But even if Henry did, eons ago, kill his brother Abel, and even if Sabina does stumble around the house threatening to give her two-weeks notice, throughout the first act the Antrobus family is united with the remaining inhabitants of the world to save the human race.
THE SECOND act opens with the cast in surfer garb dancing in the aisles to "Under The Boardwalk" a la Wuthering Heights. But why not? Happy days are here again, the Ice Age has thawed, the dinosaur is extinct, the tomato is edible and the human race celebrates at a convention of mammals in Atlantic City.
The moral of this play is not too hard to discern. When things are tough, a unified front maintains us. When things are easy, self-interest consumes us until we have too many love affairs or build too many nuclear weapons, and things get tough again. The second-act party turns into the Great Deluge and by the time we're in the third act, war has left the Antrobus home a fortified fallout shelter.
The cyclical nature of it all is even starting to nag at Mr. Antrobus' indefatigable fortitude. In the play's most serious moment, as the family tries to reestablish its happy home, Mr. Antrobus warns his wife, "You and I must never forget those resolves in peacetime that were so clear to us in times of war."
With the characters changing cosmic eras and lifetimes as often as they do, this play is extremely taxing for the performers. Since The Skin Of Our Teeth is both a classic play and a complex one, it's good material to work with and easy material to mess up. Fortunately, Jonathan Tolins' directing keeps an unstructured, multi-faceted play extremely coherent. Oleson and Clark are strong centers to a strong cast where even those playing minor roles are impressive--in particular, Mary Beth Hewitt as the grace-under-pressure and deadpan stage manager.
The Skin Of Our Teeth dares to contemplate how human beings watch the good times come and go and still have the strength to get up and do it again and again--ad nauseum. It seems even more relevent to the Eighties, when overexposure is the great social malady and the cycles are more meteoric, than it does to relatively staid World War II era.