The Shakespeare ’70 Company debuted its newest production, Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” on the Kendall Hall Main Stage Friday Sept. 26, in preparation for the Thornton Wilder Conference taking place Oct. 2-4 at the College.
The play is one of Wilder’s most ambitious and also one of his most hopeful. Taking place in the mythical Excelsior, N.J., the 1942 play revolves around a typical American nuclear family, the Antrobuses, who have been around for more than 5,000 years and have invented and done just about everything in history, starting in the Ice Age and ending in the midst of the World Wars.
One of the allures of “The Skin of Our Teeth” is that the characters in the play are aware they are actors, breaking the fourth wall between the stage and the audience.
In the midst of Act I, when junior English major Heather Duncan, portraying the family’s maid, Sabina, gets frustrated with Wilder’s dialogue, she turns to the audience and says, “I’ll say the lines, but I won’t think about the play – and I advise you not to think about it, either.”
The act ends with Sabina pleading with the audience to “Pass up your chairs, everyone! Save the human race!” to feed the fire to fend off the impending Ice Age. Some of the ushers ran up to the stage with chairs that looked like the theater’s, in keeping with the fourth wall theme.
During Act II, the madness continued with Duncan refusing to do a scene because a friend of hers in the audience had gone through something similar to what was about to occur. While the other “actors” pleaded with her and the stage manager screamed that he would to get her understudy, Duncan merely flipped her hair and said, “I sent the understudy to the student center for a cup of coffee.”
Yet, crazy interruptions aside, at its core the play explores how a family can stay together through anything, even when separated, and how members come back together against all odds. Though some of the dialogue and familial interactions do feel slightly dated, other aspects (whether modernized for this particular production or just timeless in their original form) honestly felt like daily life in 2008. Since it was written during World War II, when so many families were being torn apart, the message of hope in times of crisis is as relevant now as it was then.
While clearly an ensemble piece, some performances did stand out. Janet Quartarone was first-rate as Mrs. Antrobus – she had just the right mix of earnestness, sincerity and sarcasm every wife needs. Tom Stevenson was also very good as Mr. Antrobus, though some of his more serious scenes seemed to be overshadowed by his goofy ones. Damien Gaeta played the slightly annoying Henry Antrobus with striking accuracy, and he showcased his versatility as the character blossomed in Act III, dominating one of the most serious scenes in the play.
Though all of the performances were great, Duncan stole the show as Sabina. She was sarcastic, rude, glamorous, overdramatic and understated all at once. It was no wonder she got the loudest ovation at the end.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” is playing on the Kendall Hall main stage from tomorrow until Sunday.
And when it’s over, as Duncan says in final parting, “You go home now – the end isn’t written yet.”