It’s a play that willfully does not want to make sense. It revels in the absurd. At every turn, it asks us—hey, just go with it! And if you can strap in for the ride, you won’t be disappointed. American University’s Department of Performing Arts presents a satisfying rendition of Thornton Wilder’s comical play, The Skin of Our Teeth.
First produced in 1942, the show takes the audience through the history of the world—or at least a garbled version of it. George (Matthew Ingraham) and Maggie Antrobus (Kendall Helblig) have been married for 5,000 years. Based partially on Adam and Eve, the Antrobuses, and their two children Gladys (Roxy Reynolds) and Henry (Aaron Porter) are the model American family. Of course, there’s also an Ice Age, a flood of Biblical proportions (think Noah’s ark) and war. Yes, Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning script catapults us through time, space, and logic, as we watch the family dodge the end of the world, you guessed it, by the skin of their teeth.
For all of its antics and time-travel, the production is surprisingly restrained. Director Carl Menninger sacrifices cheap laughs for sincerity. The actors could have all been caricatures, each one an over-the-top stereotype, but they aren’t. Their genuine, subdued performances made me ask more than once, is this a comedy? There were points when the audience was not sure if they were supposed to laugh, as when the flirtatious housekeeper Sabina (Amy Wilson) searches for her family in the tatters of a war-zone. This discomfort, this blurring of lines between humor and drama, is at the heart of what makes American University’s production a success.
The script dips its toes in philosophy, religion, mythology, and American iconography. It’s a wonder how the show can ever be presented as a cohesive piece. And yet, American University’s production is cohesive. And smart. And fun.
With the help of skilled Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi, Menninger transforms the stage into a 1950s sitcom. With grey furniture and grey costumes (thanks to adept Costume Designer Barbara Tucker Parker), the world turns black and white. The effect is striking. For the second act, we are dropped into a world of color. A 1980s sitcom, dotted with casinos and seedy clubs, emblems of sin. In the third, the TV cameras are gone. We are left in a darker, destroyed place.
For a play that’s over 70 years old, the production feels fresh. Sound Designer Amy Altadonna injects the show’s transitions with sound bites from today. Through news clips, the great flood of Noah’s ark is linked with natural disasters of today. In the months since Hurricane Sandy, the connection feels eerily relevant.
As Sabina, Wilson guides the play along, interjecting snarky commentary to the audience. While her narration can feel a bit stilted, her heated scenes with Ingraham’s Mr. Antrobus are raw. Ingraham could have easily been cheesy, but beneath his every line, you can feel self-doubt. You sense the underlying tension: How can he keep a family together—or be tempted away by Sabina—at the end of days?
In the Technicolor world of sex and sin, Helblig is a pillar of family values. She projects the character’s ability to nurture with graceful gestures and a poised stage presence. With limited expressiveness in the first two acts, Porter’s performance as Henry is restrained until the third act. Then he explodes into a range of emotions that had been bottled up. Reynolds creates a perfectionist Gladys, grasping for her father’s affection, a mirror of the man’s own insecurity.
Some of the funniest moments come from the show’s minor figures. A cartoonish-looking dinosaur (Paige Austin) and mammoth (Christopher Carillo) deliver zinging one-liners, and a doomsday prophet (Emily Goodell) is an over-the-top frenzy on a sea of subtle performances. The clash works.
I encourage you to embrace American University’s heartfelt The Skin of Our Teeth in all of its zaniness. Go along for the ride!
Running Time: Two hours, with a 15 minute intermission.
The Skin of Our Teeth plays at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 15th, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, February 16th, at the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre—4200 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W., in Washington D.C. For tickets, call (202) 885-ARTS, or purchase them online.