In staging Thornton Wilder’s 1942 three-act masterpiece, The Skin of Our Teeth, which won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, PlayMakers Repertory Company’s producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch has skillfully updated the settings for a 21st century audience. Despite its age, the 79-year-old play’s themes are so very timely today.
The action starts in a 1940s household, and we are introduced to the Antrobus family of Excelsior, New Jersey. Old-timey news reels play, saccharin-sweet local news is on the screen (a nice directorial decision), and we meet the stereotypical family from the 1940s: a mother (Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Mrs. Antrobus), a father (Ray Dooley as Mr. Antrobus), their two children — perfect daughter Gladys (Omolade Wey) and hooligan Henry (Anthony August) — and their maid, Sabina (Tori Jewell) … oh, and their pet T-Rex and Woolly Mammoth (vividly costumed by McKay Coble).
Wait, what?!? In this 1940s acid trip, we learn that a modern Ice Age is bearing down on the world, the public is in a panic, and no one knows what to do. Mrs. Antrobus is determined to keep up appearances, and reminds the children to mind their p’s and q’s while they collectively wait for the father to return home to save the family. After all, he invented the wheel and the alphabet. He will certainly know what to do!
Woolly Mammoths and Ice Ages? Wheels and alphabets? It is then that we realize that in this topsy-turvy world, the past is the present is the future, with imminent doom looming large in each Act. What decisions will the Antrobus family make? When cracks show in the veneer of their “perfect” family, will they be able to handle reality? After all, Henry is just a child, boys will be boys, right? Mr. Antrobus will save the family, won’t he?
Act Two has the Antrobus family travel to a parallel universe, landing at a 1980s conference in Atlantic City, with a storm of all storms bearing down on the partying convention-goers. The children are older, and Henry’s hijinks are becoming sinister.
In this universe, humanity is on the verge of doom, and even a Fortune Teller (Sergio Mauritz Ang) can’t get people to listen to their fates. He knows what they are, but the people simply won’t listen. They laugh at him.
In this new world, the maid, Sabina, has morphed into a beauty-contest winner, set on seducing Mr. Antrobus and convincing him to leave his family. Will he succumb to her charms? After all, “Isn’t life pleasure and power?” All the while, conference-goers are only focused on the speech that Mr. Antrobus must give, just give the speech, the most important speech, even as the world crumbles around them.
Finally, in Act Three, the Antrobus family emerges in a post-apocalypse landscape, everyone intent on rebuilding. Can they rise from the rubble of war? Again, Sabina is transformed; and the audience learns that she has been a fighter, a rebel. However, after the war, she returns and just as quickly reclaims her role of maid for the Antrobus family. Has humanity learned lessons from the disasters of the past, even as Mrs. Antrobus tells her daughter to go wash her face in preparation for the arrival of Mr. Antrobus — even as they sit amongst ruins?
Scenic designer Jan Chambers’ set is spectacular, with multiple levels easily converting from a house, to an Atlantic City pier, to rubble. The screens and Reza Behjat’s lighting amplify and intensify the looming disasters. The music ranges from 1940s jazz, to Madonna and Prince, adding to our warped time travel experience. Even our Department of Picky-Picky has nothing to pick about.
Some interpret this show as a hopeful sign that we learn slowly from our history, but a darker interpretation is just as plausible — that we do not learn from the past, our collective learning is minimal, and that despite making some small breakthroughs (yeah, wheel!), history repeats itself. All of this happens while we cling to conventions and hope that someone will save us.
Are we learning from history? Is the play a nod to human resilience or human stupidity? In today’s news, we are threatened with mass species extinctions, rising temperatures, climate change, plastic pollution, and global pandemics. We seem to be in a Code Red situation; yet can we finally muster the courage to look the future square in the eyes, stop making speeches, and do something? These are heavy thoughts, indeed; but humanity needs to listen to the fortune-teller. He (we) know our future if we will stop and listen before it is too late.
We can’t recommend this play enough, really. It is amazing that a play written in the early 1940s has so much to say about us today. This was the perfect choice for PlayMakers Rep’s re-opening of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Paul Green Theatre, post pandemic. There are so many layers and interpretations to consider, digest, and discuss. If you go, you will likely see me there again, enjoying the journey — and the Woolly Mammoth.
Thornton Wilder’s THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16-21 and 23-28, except 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21st), directed by Vivienne Benesch and starring Ray Dooley as Mr. George Antrobus, Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Mrs. Maggie Antrobus, Anthony August as Henry Antrobus, Omolade Wey as Gladys Antrobus, Tori Jewell as Sabina, Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Announcer/Homer/Broadcast Official/Mr. Tremayne, Sergio Mauritz Ang as Fortune Teller/Judge/Moses, Hayley Cartee as Miss E. Muse/Convener, Saleemah Sharpe as Miss T. Muse/Convener/Ivy, Sanjana Taskar as Miss M. Muse/Broadcast Official, Heinley Gaspard as Mr. Fitzpatrick, Jamar Jones as Telegraph Boy/Professor/Convener, Khalil Lesaldo as Dinosaur/Chair Pusher, Gwendolyn Schwinke as Professor/Convener/Hester, AhDream Smith as Mammoth/Convener, and Adam Valentine as Doctor/Convener/Fred Bailey (PlayMakers Repertory Company in the Paul Green Theatre in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art). Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art). PLAYBILL: https://issuu.com/playmakersrep/docs/skinplaybill_5962157d6c8137. SPECIAL EVENTS (scroll down): https://playmakersrep.org/press/playmakers-presents-thornton-wilders-the-skin-of-our-teeth-nov-10-28-2021/. VIDEOS: https://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep1/videos. 2021-22 SEASON: https://playmakersrep.org/season/2021-2022/. PRC NEWS RELEASE: https://playmakersrep.org/press/playmakers-presents-thornton-wilders-the-skin-of-our-teeth-nov-10-28-2021/. TICKETS: $20 and up ($10 and up students), plus taxes and fees. Click here to buy tickets. DIRECTIONS/PARKING: https://playmakersrep.org/visitor-info/directions-and-parking/. CAROLINA TOGETHER COVID-19 PAGE: https://carolinatogether.unc.edu/. INFORMATION: 919-962-7529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. PLEASE DONATE TO: PlayMakers Repertory Company. Susie Potter’s Review.
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.