The Skin of Our Teeth
At the Remy Bumppo Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—“The Skin of Our Teeth” is an expressionist fantasy only Thornton Wilder could have written, an unconventionally structured story about humanity’s ability to survive the destructive forces of nature and mankind’s own follies.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” opened in 1942, less than four years after Wilder’s classic “Our Town,” also an unconventional (and better) play. “Our Town” remains a darling of high school drama clubs as well as regional theaters and even gets the occasional New York City staging. It has now being taken on by the resourceful Remy Bumppo Theatre. “The Skin of Our Teeth” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1943 but doesn’t get revived much and it is easy to see why. The play is technically demanding, requires a large, and thus expensive, cast, runs almost three hours with two intermissions, and perhaps most damaging, seems dated. All those unconventional theatrical devices were startling and fresh 75 years ago, but their familiarity robs the show of much of what was delightful novelty.
The play is nothing if not ambitious. It sets out to dramatize the indestructibility of the human race, in spite of its own grievous flaws (the play‘s title comes from The Book of Job). Wilder tells his “story through the adventures of George Androbus, his wife, and their two grown children, Gladys and Henry. The play is divided into three acts each dealing with a disaster–the ice age in the first act, Noah’s Flood in the second act, and a world war, just concluded, in the final act. The characters endure much but they survive.
Wilder’s script is a meld of sentimentality, realism, offbeat comedy, historical anachronism, and vaudeville-like shtick. There is a woolly mammoth and a dinosaur, both with human qualities, along with bathing beauties, a singing telegram, an appearance by Moses, and quotations from Plato and Spinoza..
A saucy young woman named Sabina weaves her way through the narrative as a Lillith-type temptress, when she isn’t the Androbus maid. George Androbus invents the wheel, the alphabet, and mathematics, but has trouble managing his family. His son Henry is Cain out of the Bible, rebellious, bitter, violent, and dangerous. Periodically the performers and stagehands break character to talk directly to the audience, especially Sabina who complains loudly about the play, complaining petulantly that she doesn’t understand her lines.
The play likely touched a responsive chord back in 1942, when the United States was facing World War II and there was an awareness that mankind was at a crossroads and the outcome wasn’t at all clear. So Wilder’s “We did it before and we can do it again” optimistic take on human history must have been a heartening beacon of light at a very dark time.
Today we live in a more cynical, social media drenched time. Wilder’s optimism comes across as a little quaint. The fantasy elements were an imaginative delight in 1942 but their novelty has diminished with the innovations of 75 years of later theater. There are numerous comic and creative touches in the show that still will connect with a viewer but there is no way the play’s nontraditional features will have the impact they produced in 1942.
The Remy Bumppo production under Krissy Vanderwarker’s direction is limited in its fantastical moments by the Greenhouse’s modest technical capabilities. There are humorous impersonations of the mammoth and the dinosaur in the first act but the stage is too intimate to make much of the colorful Boardwalk scene in Atlantic City in the second act. A few pictures tumble off the wall in the Androbus living room during the ice age and a book shelf collapses, but spectacle and technological wizardry are in short supply throughout.
Credit the director with taking the revival seriously, rather than allowing all the hi jinx to turn the narrative into a nudge-nudge-wink-wink chuckle fest. The Wilder message comes in unobstructed by distracting easy laughs culled from the script’s fantasy quotient. The whimsy is present but it’s not intrusive.
Kareem Bandealy is cast as George Androbus and his intensive acting style doesn’t always mesh with the character’s average middle class suburban persona. Linda Gillum is spot-on as Mrs. Androbus, matronly and bossy and protective of her children. Bandealy and Gillum don’t have much chemistry as husband and wife, though Bandealy shows intense acting chops in his battle with George’s son Henry, climaxed with the maddened Henry going after his father with a knife. Matt Farabee is outstanding as the hostile, destructive, but also vulnerable Henry.
Kelly O’Sullivan takes on the demanding role of Sabina. O’Sullivan’s interpretation leans more toward the perky than the worldly siren but the character shifts gears temperamentally throughout the play, showing off O’Sullivan’s impressive versatility. Kayla Raelle Holder does well as Henry’s precocious and promiscuous sister. Charin Alvarez is the fortuneteller, the only other major character.
The high and low points in the production come in the final act. An on-stage rehearsal of backstage personnel is a plod, but the story builds to a strong finish, headed by the fight between George and Henry. At the end, George overcomes his discouragement over the future to once again jump into the fray of saving humanity. “All I ask is the chance to build new worlds and God has always given us that,” cries the suddenly resolute George.
The designers do well, especially considering the minimal opportunities to capitalize extensively on the play’s fantasy elements. So props to Yeaji Kim (scenic and projections designer), Christine Binder (lighting), Mieka van der Ploeg (costumes), Jessica Mondres (properties), and Stephen Ptacek (sound and original music).
“The Skin of Our Teeth” can claim relevance because it touches on modern concerns like environmental challenges and the problem of refugees. Burt we have been bombarded with so much crisis news and so many conflicting and partisan solutions that Wilder’s advice to humanity to just keep soldiering on sounds simplistic. Still, the playwright’s heart was in the right place. The play runs a little long, though it profits from bits of updating to bring the script humorously into the new millennium. Some viewers may leave the theater unimpressed, but “The Skin of Our Teeth” is a one-of-a-kind work that attempts to address crucial issues in a distinctive offbeat style. In that sense it deserves respect and support.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” runs through November 12 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 North Lincoln Avenue. Most performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $42.50 to $52.50. Call 773 404 7336 or visit www.RemyBumppo.org .
The show gets a rating of
. October 2017
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