Thornton Wilder’s allegorical paean to humanity’s survival “by the skin of our teeth” has itself become a marvel of endurance. First staged in 1942, when times were decidedly dire, the determinedly optimistic The Skin of Our Teeth was a Pulitzer Prize-winning hit on Broadway and has been steadily produced ever since.
It’s a wackadoodle play, a kitchen sink of metatheatrical tricks. The actors break character and stop then restart the play, the chronology spans eons in three acts, comic bits accumulate with non-sequiturial chutzpah. Truth to tell, Wilder’s dramaturgical unorthodoxy has been matched if not surpassed by many of the very experimental playwrights he inspired. Yet this unclassifiable comedy-drama sticks around, an artifact from the past and a perennial audience pleaser—because crazily enough it’s got something to say that still needs hearing.
Wilder believed the play “mostly comes alive under times of crisis.” And indeed, given the cynical mess in our government and the creeping cynicism that has ensued, the fresh and feisty version of The Skin of Our Teeth that comes alive in Constellation Theatre Company’s production proves Wilder’s point perfectly.
The basic plot is by any measure screwy. A certain George and Maggie Antrobus (Steven Carpenter and Lolita Marie)—stand-ins for the human race—have been married for 5,000 years. They live simultaneously in 1942 Excelsior, New Jersey, and in time immemorial. Which means that a radio broadcaster can announce news of the day even as George invents the wheel and a pet dino and woolly mammoth wander in.
Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus have two upstart teenagers—a daughter, Gladys (Malinda Kathleen Reese), and a son, Henry (Dallas Tolentino)—and an outspoken maid, Sabina (Tonya Beckman). A gritty if offbeat family, the Antrobuses survive before our eyes the Ice Age (in Act One), a global flood (in Act Two), and a devastating war (in Act Three). The upbeat ending celebrates humanity’s resilience and ability to make new beginnings.
The fun is in the fast-paced farcical crises that beset this tenacious family, and Director Mary Hall Surface keeps up a winning momentum. Some of Wilder’s laugh lines land more mildly today than they surely did in 1942, yet a few are surprisingly contemporary zingers. And overall there’s an energetic pleasantness and cheerful inventiveness to the performances that well sustains the show’s two and a half hours.
In particular, Lolita Marie plays Mrs. Antrobus with a persuasive gravitas that consistently grounds the play, and Tonya Beckman brings to Sabina a sassy sashay that brightens each scene she’s in.
Also noteworthy in the big cast are Gerrad Alex Taylor (Telegraph Boy/Interviewer/Ensemble), Collin Connor (Frederick/Fred Bailey/Ensemble), Ben Lauer (Dolly/Broadcast Official/Ensemble), Billie Krishawn (Stage Manager/Ensemble), Lilian Oben (Fortune Teller/Ensemble), Mary Miller-Booker (Broadcast Official/Hester/Ensemble), Christopher Gillespie (Mr. Tremayne/Ensemble), and Natalie Cutcher (Ivy/Ensemble).
The set by Scenic Designer A.J. Guban (who also did the lighting) is particularly clever. Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright—with geometric earth tones on the floor, stacked-flagstone walls, mission furnishings—it winks at the fact that several of the great architect’s most famous houses have not withstood time well.
Costume Designer Frank Labovitz walks a fine funny line between couture and cartoon, especially in the colorful second-act scene on the Atlantic City Boardwalk (where we meet a flamboyant Fortune Teller who knows both future and past). Sound Designer Justin Schmitz besides providing some delightful 1940s music tracks also makes scenes of nearby disaster a chest-pounding experience. And Puppet Designer Matthew Aldwin McGee’s antediluvian critters are cute as buttons.
The Skin of Our Teeth is a perfect pick-me-up for imperfect times. The play has been around and will likely be around longer, since its significance shelf life syncs with that of the human race. But hats off to Constellation Theatre Company for reminding us that despite current crises, we all have an important part to play in continuing what has to “go on and on for ages yet.”
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including a single intermission between Acts One and Two.
The Skin of Our Teeth plays through February 11, 2018, at Constellation Theatre Company performing at Source Theatre – 1835 14th Street North West, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7741, or purchase them online.