Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
The Skin of Our Teeth
Choosing a play written in 1942 and one sometimes labeled as dated presents a risk for an artistic director. Hence, Kate Maguire deserves more than casual praise for bringing this old Wilder classic back to the boards. With a performance running time of close to three hours, it lives on.
The Skin of Our Teeth is highly allegorical: its characters stand for more than themselves. The Antrobus family, based in fictional Excelsior, New Jersey, in the early twentieth century, is faced with huge quantities of ice on the descent from Canada. We learn part of this from the Stage Manager (Matt Sullivan), who provides some linking narration. Taking over description is Sabina (Ariana Venturi) who, for the first and third acts, is a maid. She becomes a beauty queen contestant during act two. Venturi is constantly fixing her outfits (costume design by Hunter Kaczorowski), patting herself, and frenetically and comically moving all over. She always amuses her audience. Danny Johnson plays Mr. Antrobus, who is said to have invented the alphabet, the wheel, and multiplication tables, too. Mrs. Antrobus (the always dextrous Harriet Harris) claims she and her husband have been married for 5000 years.
After the first intermission, the play resumes in Atlantic City. The Antrobus children, namely Gladys (Claire Saunders) and Henry (Marcus Gladney Jr.), figure more prominently, as they will again in the final act. There is far more overt conflict during the final portion of the play, but Wilder does bring his plot and theme full circle.
The playwright devised archetypal characters who stand for themselves and, symbolically, for much more. That this play was first produced in 1942, in the midst of World War II, should not be forgotten. Just about everything about The Skin of Our Teeth is larger than life. When, for example, animals are mentioned, Berkshire Theatre Group creative personnel (led, one imagines, by scenic designer Bill Clarke) manage to slide in floor-to-ceiling creations.
Every so often, a performer steps out of character, speaking with the audience. A few times, Venturi assumes the persona of a young, talented, aspiring actress; she even mentions her training at Yale School of Drama. This works. Freeing the actors, even for a few moments, is immediately contemporary and relevant. After all, the play is about human beings and individuals' capabilities for rebounding from catastrophe.
The dialogue and story run from the ludicrous (like dinosaurs and other mammals in the Antrobus' backyard) to the threats posed by the ice age and potential devastation caused by war. The text always returns to themes of the promising resilience of human beings and time which is not linear but circular. Wilder's script opens the playing field for a production that is strange, bizarre, odd but, in the end, telling. David Auburn taps into and honors the original while he applies his own imaginative touches. One feels what is suitably anachronistic, but splashes of the production are absolutely pertinent to twenty-first century America.
Ariana Venturi is a joy to behold as the agitating, agitated, and pessimistic Sabina. In the second act, she comes across as a willowy seductress. In a physically demanding role, Venturi is constantly expressive and quite evocative. Danny Johnson's Mr. Antrobus experiences highs and lows, and the actor obliges with gusto. Mrs. Antrobus reacts to her husband, children, and the maid as well, and Harriet Harris' performance is a sensitive, carefully disciplined one.
The Skin of Our Teeth, through August 3, 2019, at Berkshire Theatre Group, Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 East Main Street, Stockbridge MA. For tickets and information, call 413-997-4444 or visit www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.