NEW YORK—I was jotting down some notes between acts one and two of the Broadway revival of “The Skin of Our Teeth” when a woman asked what I was doing. When I explained I was a theater critic, she looked me in the eye and asked, “Can you explain the play to me?”
Explaining Thornton Wilder’s 1942 work is no simple task. On the surface, it’s about a family who survives the Ice Age, the flood, and a devastating war. It’s also about the bonds between husband and wife, and parents and children.
There are numerous historical and biblical references, and characters that break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. The entire experience is an enticing and intriguing exploration of the strength, weakness, and ultimate resolve of the human race.
Billed as a “fantastic comedy in three acts,” the play starts and ends in Excelsior, New Jersey, the home of George Antrobus (James Vincent Meredith), inventor of the wheel, alphabet, and multiplication tables, along with such items as beer and gunpowder.
So acclaimed are his accomplishments, he’s elected president of Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals (Subdivision Humans) in a ceremony in 1922, Atlantic City, the location a stand-in for Sodom and Gomorrah.
Others in the family include George’s devoted and long-suffering wife Maggie (Roslyn Ruff), whose own contributions to society include the apron. Their two remaining children are Gladys (Paige Gilbert) and Henry (Julian Robertson), the name he currently goes by. Also part of the Antrobus clan is the maid Sabina (Gabby Beans).
Once having a far more exalted status in the household, Sabina’s first appearance calls to mind “Florence” from the TV series “The Jeffersons” and actress Butterfly McQueen. Sabina’s current concern is when George will be home on this, the coldest day of the year (it’s mid-August), as reports circulate of a gigantic wall of ice approaching from Vermont.
A common theme in Wilder’s plays is the generational journey through life, something Wilder explores in such works as “Our Town” and “The Long Christmas Dinner.” With “The Skin of Our Teeth,” the title inspired by a passage in the Book of Job, Wilder uses this idea to illustrate the resiliency of the human race in the face of overwhelming adversity.
There is also the idea that there will always be those who see humanity’s shining potential and the possibility of how wonderful things could be.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz takes this still-topical and epic tale and brings it vibrantly to life. The first act is particularly poignant as the family must decide whether to share their limited resources with a group of wanderers seeking shelter from the ever-increasing frigid temperatures, even though doing so might diminish the Antrobus’s own chances for survival.
There are also the questions which involve the extinction of the dinosaurs (and some great work by the various puppeteers), of who lives and who dies, and who gets to make those decisions.
Dynamic Character Interactions
Despite the continual feeling of a spectacle, what really make the play click is the dynamic among the characters. Especially interesting is the relationship between Maggie and Sabina. They start off as rivals, change to an antagonistic mistress-servant dynamic, eventually become fellow survivors and, for a brief moment, equals.
Also powerful is the relationship between George and Henry. George is the one who favors order and calm, while Henry is far more of a rebel. His rebelliousness turns from quiet belligerence to continual defiance and, finally, outright hatred.
Meredith does a very good job as George: an inventor, realist, and a man who often feels he needs more than his family can provide. He is also far more dependent on his wife than he’ll admit. Whenever he loses his resolve, or becomes less than the honorable husband he purports to be, it falls to Maggie (Ruff giving a strong yet understated performance) to remind him about the importance of what he must do, both for his family and for humanity at large.
Beans often steals the show with a sometimes too-over-the-top portrayal of Sabina. The part requires her to assume multiple characterizations while seeking the life she feels entitled to. Robertson is fine as Henry, who shows an ever-increasing acting out of his inner rage. He is continually penalized, as he sees it, for something he did long ago.
Gilbert is fine as Gladys, the least developed of the main characters. Ironically in the end, she’s the one who has matured the most. Other standouts include Priscilla Lopez as a fortune teller, who knows full well of what she speaks, and William DeMeritt as the frantic Announcer trying to get a radio broadcast to go off as planned.
Adam Rigg’s sets are excellent, particularly the Atlantic City sequence, which projects an often garish yet nostalgic atmosphere, not to mention a rather novel way of showing changes in the weather.
As Sabina notes, the ending to “The Skin of Our Teeth” is not yet written. What it does offer is a trip quite fascinating to behold, if one is ready to take it. One may leave with more questions than answers but, then again, humanity’s ending hasn’t been written yet either.
Additional material added to the text by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
‘The Skin of Our Teeth’
Lincoln Center Theater
150 W. 65th St., New York
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or LCT.org
Running Time: 3 hours (with 1 pause and 1 intermission)
Closes: May 29