A full-scale production of The Skin of Our Teeth can feel like purgatory, with Thornton Wilder’s 1942 script weighing in at close to 3 hours. Thankfully, the Constellation Theater has revived a peppy, eye-popping version that keeps things moving as the human race grapples with madcap challenges for survival from the Ice Age to war in a near distant future. Deep philosophical questions are embedded in the spun floss debate of whether it’s too cold to put your pet woolly mammoth in the yard (puppets courtesy of Matthew Aldwin McGee). You may find you’re a little lost wandering in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights if you don’t have a solid grasp of the Old Testament, but the trials facing the cast range from age-old dilemmas (man needs fire) to very recognizable modern problems (movie money).
All of humanity is personably represented by George and Maggie Antrobus (Steven Carpenter and Lolita Marie); and their children, troubled Henry (Cain in witness protection, played by Dallas Tolentino) and perfect Gladys (Malinda Kathleen Reese). Our Eternal Family is supported, or side-swiped, by every other archetype bundled into the form of temptress maid Sabina, comi-tragically portrayed by scene stealing Tonya Beckman. A.J. Guban’s various sets enhance the idea of our crew bound together in a lifeboat (figuratively and literally) against the stormy seas of life. Frank Labovtiz perfectly flips between flamboyant and staid costumes, as scenes require, with particularly eye-catching Atlantic City regalia.
The Skin of Our Teeth premiered on Broadway with the country just shaking free the claws of the Great Depression, only to springboard off the attack on Pearl Harbor into World War II. In the vaudevillian style of the day, Wilder drags his characters through the annals of time to portray the resilience of the human race at evading extinction. You laugh, you cry, you see it again and again. The script can occasionally feel like watching a Seinfeld episode, where you want to shout at the screen “No, George, stop! You know if you do that it will come back to bite you….” But, alas, there is no deterring civilization from stubbing its own toe. Despite the lessons of history, humanity repeatedly struggles and loses against its baser nature.
So tense is the audience experience of confronting its own gangrenous probity that Wilder punctures the fourth wall to grant viewers relief. Actors object to reciting scripted language that pricks our flattering self-perception and hammers us with our unavoidable ignobility: “They get it.” Stage manager intervention is required, but tautness is, if briefly, discharged. We do get it. We sort of suck. Luckily the play doesn’t end there. It’s ultimately a story of resilience and hope. Mary Hall Surface’s direction deftly educes Wilder’s vision that we are always on the edge of catastrophe, and, likely always will be, but somehow we escape to begin anew, by the skin of our teeth.
The Skin of Our Teeth is playing at Constellation Theatre at Source (1835 14th Street, NW Washington, DC 20009) through February 11, 2018. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one fifteen minute intermission. For more information or tickets call 202-204-7741 or click here.
Photos credit Daniel Schwartz