Thornton Wilder’s 1942 The Skin of Our Teeth holds obvious appeal for artists and audiences who are trying to heal from the wounds of an ongoing pandemic. It is a play, after all, about survival under chaos.
George Antrobus (James Vincent Meredith) is an exceptional American. He invented the lever, the wheel, the alphabet, and mathematics. His family is pure Norman Rockwell: wife Maggie (Roslyn Ruff), daughter Gladys (Paige Gilbert), son Henry (Julian Robertson), and maid Sabina (Gabby Beans). All but the last live in comfort. They have a pet dinosaur and wooly mammoth. They have enough to feed refugees.
Under this veneer of conventionality, however, hides an ugly, mythical violence. The Antrobus’ used to have another son, but he was killed by Henry: “It certainly was an unfortunate accident,” Sabina tells the audience, “and it was very hard getting the police out of the house.” George did not hire but abducted and raped Sabina. And recent changes in the weather suggest an impending ice age.
Over the next three acts, the Antrobuses will also live through a Biblical flood and a seven-year war. George will win the presidency of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, and nearly every act of construction will be followed by one of destruction. The original production opened eleven months after the United States entered World War II and ran for almost a year.
Will we survive Covid-19, global warming, white supremacy, and the whims of mercurial demagogues? These are the questions that any production of The Skin of Our Teeth is implicitly asking right now. The current production at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, seems cautiously optimistic. The inclusion of a line from bell hooks (“The moment we choose to love, we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others”) suggests the possibility of liberation. The fact that hooks has been written into a scene that previously only quoted white males is an illustration of the first half of this quotation: “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”
It’s nice to see a production of The Skin of Our Teeth as lavish as this one. The set design by Adam Rigg is breathtaking, especially the second-act Atlantic City boardwalk. But I do think Blain-Cruz has done too much to humanize the Antrobus family, who are ultimately archetypical rather than realistic. Further, I didn’t feel the menace behind their squeaky-clean, all-American exterior, which hampers Thornton’s premise that the comforts of middle-class life are the fruits of violence. (A line spoken by Maggie to Sabina, “When Mr. Antrobus raped you home from your Sabine hills, he did it to insult me,” has been changed to “snatched you up from your home in the Sabine hills.”) The cast is good, but with the exception of Beans’ Sabina, they are forced into more naturalistic intonations. As a result, the power of the play is somewhat dimmed.
The Skin of Our Teeth runs through May 29th at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. 150 W. 65th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 55 minutes. One intermission. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes.