Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth is arguably the most seriously flawed classic in the American theatre. If plays could be subjected to psychological analysis, The Skin of Our Teeth would qualify as belonging to dissociative identity disorder.
Consider this: the play is divided into three acts. In the first act, the five central characters are residing in a large, pleasant house in north Jersey, but soon to be driven out by the Ice Age slithering down from the Arctic and Canada. In Act Two, the central quintet is celebrating a major election victory in Atlantic City, but before long, they have to vacate the resort and hop onto a huge boat to avoid a great flood about to engulf the planet. Act Three finds the group returning to their home in north Jersey, but said pleasant home is now covered in rubble, the result of a devastating war.
Those five at the center of Skin of Our Teeth are the four members of the Antrobus family and their dutiful maid, Sabina. George Antrobus, the pater familias, commutes to his downtown office where his regular activities include inventing the wheel, crafting our alphabet and devising multiplication tables. Routine things like that.
His stay-at-home wife Maggie carries out the standard functions of an early 20th century housewife and mother. Oh, she does mention at one point that she and George have been married for 5,000 years. The two teenage children, Henry and Gladys, are confused about how they can fit into a world going through momentous changes while they stand as hapless witnesses. Henry was formerly known as Cain, but he had to change his name after killing his older brother Abel in a mishap with a slingshot.
Maid Sabina is frustrated but sporadically loyal. She keeps giving two-weeks’ notice, then rescinding her resignation moments later. However, she’s only a maid in Acts One and Three; in the middle act, she becomes Lilly, a saucy beauty contest winner who seduces George and tries to get him to ditch Maggie just before torrential rains force the family and plentiful pairs of animals into their escape vessel.
Lilly/Sabina also breaks characters a number of times to comment on some of the shortcomings of the script or to say why she’s decided not to scuttle through a certain chunk of dialogue. When she goes on these tangents, the stage manager emerges from the wings to admonish her and get the play back on the rails. In Act III, the actor playing George himself breaks character and is joined by the stage manager to explain that certain actors have suddenly been taken ill and are to be replaced with stagehands and other non-actors.
While this might sound like three seasons of Survivor beset with an unusual string of misadventures, it’s actually a compelling piece of theatre that was quite a of bold endeavor for its time. (Wilder began writing the play in 1940, and it first opened in the Fall of 1942.) Perhaps the play’s boldest move is presenting an obvious allegory, a device that rarely succeeds in theatre. The implication of this allegory points to the end of the world, or rather how the human species has repeatedly approached the brink of annihilation but always somehow managed to escape and renew, to build again and start over from a new sense of hope and trust.
Yes, yes, it is somewhat dated, with the three female characters lumbered with lines and behavior that today draw winces and scowls. And it’s true that some of the comic bits now seem hopelessly lame, strains of the allegory are layered on much too thick to swallow, and some characters are drawn so broadly they almost slip off the screen. (This is, of course, an online production.) But just when you think you’ve gone far enough with this play, you suddenly realize that you’re actually absorbed by it despite all its annoying elements.
More, as dated as many parts of the dialogue and the attitudes are, the sense of being at the edge of some kind of apocalypse is all too relevant in these times of increasing natural disasters brought on by climate change, raging pandemics and international tensions that threaten to erupt into major wars in various parts of the planet.
Handled by anything less than a first-rate cast, Skin of Our Teeth could turn into an excruciating embarrassment. Fortunately for us here, the Quintessence Theatre has put together a stellar cast for their go at the play. The lineup includes one bona fide Tony Award winner, and a team of exceptional talents in all the key roles.
At the center of the Antrobus family are two of the strongest of the strong. Rachel Bay Jones (who won the Tony for her work in Dear Evan Hansen) made Maggie Antrobus a touchingly complex character who is trying to hold her family and her world together despite the collapse going on all around them. The character of Maggie teeters on the edge of being a sad caricature, but Jones instead turns her into a force driving many key moments of the play.
Jones finds a strong complement in Benim Foster as George. Navigating the rough waters of a convoluted allegory presents a significant challenge for anyone in this lead role; Foster manages to hit the right notes in every scene and with every looping change in his character.
Jacinta Yelland handles the character of Gladys nicely, though Wilder’s script does not give her much room to grow in. Lee Cortopassi is strong as Henry. Much of this character resides in the realm of caricature. But in that last act, when Henry gives vent to gusts of wrath, resentment and determination to define himself, Cortopossi shows the depth and scope of his talent, making these moments the most powerful in the show. (Let’s give another nod to Benim Foster here, because it’s Henry’s interaction with his father that gives these moments their full charge.)
Although Janis Dardaris was given some of the smaller assignments (the stage manager, the Atlantic City fortune teller, Judge Moses and some other ensemble roles), she is solid in every appearance.
As Sabina the maid and Lilly the conniving beauty queen (and also the actress in the play-within-the-play who fills these roles), Leigha Kato was quite simply outstanding. Kato is called on to ring more changes in her roles than the other actors, and she gives full embodiment to each character, adding rich subtext with a raised eyebrow or a grimace as needed. I would go so far as to rank her alongside Rachel Bay Jones and Benim Foster as one of the three finest performances in a strong, strong cast.
Alex Burns’ inventive direction contributed significantly to making this Skin of Our Teeth a winning rendition. It’sobvious that Burn’s collaboration with the actors is one reason why this version rates as a proud achievement for Quintessence and not an embarrassment.
Cinematographer Phillip Todd shares a measure of that praise. Todd filmed and edited this version, which was visually interesting all the way through. At times, the camera remained fixed on a wide shot of the stage, giving the impression you’re watching a stationary camera recording a staged performance in an unimaginative way. But suddenly, the camera angle changes, giving another dimension to the characters and the scene, yet never making the camera work more important than the performances themselves.
As I said at the top, The Skin of Our Teeth is a problematic play and not everyone will warm to it. But if you don’t like this version of the work, you will simply not like any rendering of Skin of Our Teeth. TheQuintessence Theatre team gives Wilder’s wild experiment just about the best treatment it can get.
You can catch The Skin of Our Teeth by going to the Theatre Philadelphia or Quintessence Theatre Group website (quintessencetheatre.org),clicking BUY TICKETS and then following all the prompts. Once you buy tickets, you have a viewing window of 72 hours to enjoy the show at your convenience. The online production is available through August 1. While you do have the option of renting just one or two acts, I’d strongly advise you to opt for all three and watch them in the order the author intended.