Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This astonishingly durable family is at the heart of The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize winning play now in a spectacular staging by Girl Friday Productions. Girl Friday makes a point of staging large-scale plays with big casts and layered themes. With The Skin of Our Teeth they hit the jackpot, with sixteen actors on stage playing twice that many roles, having the time of their lives while making Wilder's 76-year-old comedy speak directly to things that keep us awake at night in 2019.
All three acts take place in New Jersey, set to look circa 1942, which is when the play premiered, yet travel merrily in time, mixing and matching species, prophets, personages and cataclysm in ways that are absolutely preposterous. Yet, once we get in the swing of the thing, it all make perfect sense. Act one is set in the modest Antrobus home, where we are greeted by their decidedly sassy housemaid Sabina, who worries about Mr. Antrobus making it home from work before the advancing ice sheets arrive. George Antrobus is as an inventor, lucky to live in an epoch when everything needs inventing. He arrives home jubilant, having just invented the wheel and completed the alphabet. The ever-practical Mrs. Antrobus keeps the home organized and looks after the children: Gladys, their "perfect" daughter, and Henry, whose quick, violent temper makes him a far from perfect son. A dinosaur and mammoth who live in their yard try to sneak inside, unaccustomed to such bitter cold, especially in August.
Act two is set in the same 1942 time period but on the Atlantic City boardwalk, where the 600,000th annual convention of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Human Division, is underway. Civilization has developed quite handsomely since the Ice Age, so there is much to celebrate. George has been elected president, his campaign slogan "Enjoy Yourself." When Mrs. Antrobus suggests a more family-centered agenda, she is ridiculed by unruly conventioneers. Lily "Miss Atlantic City" Fairweather (a dead ringer for Sabina) schemes to seduce George away from his wife, while Henry has run amok with his temper again. Meanwhile, the sky is darkening, the weather turning stormy, the ocean rising over the beach. Will they all perish?
Act three returns to the Antrobus home, now a total wreck after seven years of war. Sabina arrives looking like a punk-guerilla soldier, to announce that the war is over. Mrs. Antrobus, Gladys, and Gladys' new baby come out of hiding. Both George and Henry have survived, but there are scores between the father and son that remain to be settled. Moreover, George has lost his eternally optimistic drive. He ruminates that during the war he thought that when it was all over he would again embark on building a better life; now that peace has arrived, he just wants to make a comfortable life.
Each act begins with a newsreel, filmed in 1942 vintage grainy black and white, to brings us "up to date" as to the most recent catastrophes and the mundane adjustments human kind has made to them, giving us a sense too of the dislocation of time that lies ahead. It makes for an excellent framing device, one of the numerous ways in which The Skin of Our Teeth broke with the conventions of its day. Another is the breaking of the fourth wall. Sabina, or rather the actress playing her, halts the play to express her own opinion on things, and a stage manager brings out backstage crew and rehearses them, before our eyes, to replace cast members who, en masse, have taken ill. All sorts of wacky business go on throughout the play, and every bit of it works.
I was completely blown away by this staging of The Skin of Our Teeth, starting with the work of director Joel Sass, who moves the players smoothly through an enormous amount of content, brilliant dialog, unexpected turns of plot, laugh-out-loud comedy, and though-provoking themes, at all times keeping up the pep and lucidity of the work. Sass also designed the sets, giving them the look of New Yorker cartoons, which serves the play remarkably well.
Kathy Kohl's costumes are perfect. In act one, Sabina's absurd get-up as a French maid is a hoot, and Kohl has devised lovable dinosaur and mammoth costumes. The Antrobus family look a perfect match with their 1942 decor, and the refugees who descend on them each convey their specific classical origins. The act two crowd at Atlantic City are decked out in over-the-top gaudiness, in line with their atrocious behavior, while the act three war survivors look fittingly post-apocalyptic. Lighting (Michael P. Kittel) and sound (C. Andrew Mayer) designs provide marvelous enhancement throughout the play, and the vast array of props are charmingly designed by Rick Polenek. Hats off also to Kathy Maxwell's wonderful projections that depict the wider world descending upon the Antrobus family.
The cast functions as an ensemble, each actor playing his or her part (or parts) to the hilt. Alayne Hopkins is a sublime Sabina, her mildly purring voice and her posture indicating that she may be a housemaid, but she is her own woman. Her closing lines are delivered with a sincerity that brought tears to my eyes. John Middleton's nervous energy and everyman charm are perfectly suited to George Antrobus. He expresses optimism with the most persuasive glee, and his disappointments come from deep within. Kirby Bennett is terrific as Mrs. Antrobus, projecting a calm external bearing and an inner strength that knows the things in life that must be cherished, as well as the nuts and bolts of getting things done.
Delightful comic actor Neal Skoy conveys Henry's out of control anger, and we see it evolve from child-like impulses to raging belligerence. He convinces us that embedded anger is a part of the human condition not to be dismissed or taken lightlya message that no doubt resonated especially with first run audiences seeing the play during World War II. Kathryn Fumie captures Gladys' inner brat, encased in girly trappings to play the part of the "perfect child," until in act three she casts off her childishness to be in the harsh real world. Dana Lee Thompson has a winning spin on the cynical fortune teller, and James Ramlet's booming voice and august bearing perfectly suit his appearance as Moses.
The Skin of Our Teeth seems so reflective of our lives in 2019, so biting in bringing to light the most urgent of our problems, that it is hard to fathom that it was writtenand was a big hitin 1942. Perhaps the crises that feel so much of the moment have, at their core, underpinnings in human nature that endure over decades, centuries and millennia. Wilder, whose other landmark plays Our Town and The Matchmaker also reveal a great deal about the human condition, created a comedy fun-house, bending all the rules of time and juggling the cornerstones of civilization with the human frailties over which we stumble. That he made it all work is a testament to his genius. That Girl Friday Productions, has brought it to delirious life, its humor, its warmth and its wisdom all aglow, is a gift. Rush for your tickets.
The Skin of Our Teeth, through March 3, 2019, by Girl Friday Productions, at Park Square Theatre's Proscenium Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; students (18 or younger and college students with ID), $16.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military, $10.00 discount. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to www.girlfridayproductions.org.
Playwright: Thornton Wilder; Direction and Scenic Design: Joel Sass; Assistant Director: Chava Curland; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design and Video Programming: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Design: Rick Polenek; Cinematographer for Projection Design: Maxwell Collyard and Kathy Maxwell; Dramaturg: Christine Gordon; Fight Choreography: Annie Enneking; Vocal Coach: Lucinda Holshue; Technical Director: Gaea Dill-D'Ascoli; Stage Manager: Penny Laden Kissinger; Assistant Stage Manager: Katie Burger; Production Managers: Brian Columbus (for Girl Friday Productions) and Mary Montgomery- Jensen (for Park Square).
Cast: Kirby Bennett (Mrs. Antrobus), Ernest Briggs (Announcer/Doctor/Conveener/Fred Bailey), Corey Fern (Conveener/Cameraman), Pedro Juan Fonseca (Dinosaur/Conveener/Lifeguard), Wendy Freshman (Miss T. Muse/Conveener/Broadcast Official/Hester), Kathryn Fumie (Gladys), Alayne Hopkins (Sabina), Sam Landman (Mr. Fitzpatrick/Bingo Caller/Conveener), Alice McGlave (Miss E. Muse/ Conveener/Ivy), John Middleton (Mr. Antrobus), Victoria Pyan (Mammoth/Conveener), James Ramlet (Judge Moses/Conveener/Mr. Tremayne), Taj Ruler (Telegraph Boy/Miss M. Muse/Conveener/ Broadcast Assistant), Neal Skoy (Henry), Mike Swan (Homer/Chair Pusher/Conveener), Dana Lee Thompson (Professor/Fortune Teller).