Much will no doubt be made of Thornton Wilder’s claim that The Skin of Our Teeth “mostly comes alive under conditions of crisis.” Indeed, this play about a “typical American family” seems unusually prescient. Eschewing traditional narrative and chronological structure, The Skin of Our Teeth follows the Antrobuses through three fraught periods in human (and mythological) history. In Act One, an Ice Age threatens the survival of man. In Act Two, set on the Atlantic City boardwalk, a flood does the same. And in Act Three, the end of a war points toward a future framed by humanism and Enlightenment values. But environmental concerns are not the only parallels to our own time; the Antrobuses must also confront the refugee class that stands, starving and shivering, outside their front door.
Still, The Skin of Our Teeth is a play for all times, not just those on the precipice of cataclysm. After all, the action onstage illuminates the problems that have plagued domestic and national spaces virtually since their creation. Mr. Antrobus (David Rasche) is the inventor of the wheel, of mathematics, and of the alphabet. Mr. Rasche has the bearing of a ‘fifties television patriarch, but his booming, Father Knows Best delivery hides the sinister reality of his family drama. His son (Reynaldo Piniella) changes his name to “Henry” after he kills his younger brother, Abel, but this does nothing to quell his violent tendencies. His daughter, Gladys (Kimber Monroe), is a more typical American girl, and yet her predilection for revealing clothing betrays Mr. Antrobus’ deep anxieties about female sexuality. Not to mention that his wife, Mrs. Antrobus (Kecia Lewis), competes for his affection with their their maid, Sabina (Mary Wiseman), a woman he “raped … home from [her] Sabina hills,” suggesting the action is both a violation of body and a violation of free movement. Never mind that they tend to circle the man with Norman Rockwell-style devotion; under this gossamer veneer, Wilder unveils that American homes were built on patriarchal and class dominance.
Trump has done a great deal to highlight and exacerbate these problems, but he didn’t invent them. In fact, The Skin of Our Teeth may be more a play for times of calm, times when we are more likely to forget our origin stories. Still, Arin Arbus handles this production with characteristic sophistication. Though Mr. Rasche does not shy away from his Mr. Antrobus’ venal moments, he also demonstrates what is good about the Enlightenment project. After returning home from battle, his first concern is for his books, and the play concludes with a montage of excerpts from our (all-male, to be sure) intellectual inheritance: Aristotle, Plato, the Old Testament, and Spinoza. Do these nobler intentions, these strivings for a more perfect union atone for our sins? Certainly not. But coupled with a long view of history, one that is cyclical rather than progressive, it does seem to indicate that we have been through all of this before and made it out the other side—even if it was by the skin of our teeth.
The Skin of Our Teeth runs through March 19th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. 2 hours 40 minutes. One intermission.