And you think you have problems?
Wait until you see the problems arriving at the door of the Antrobus family, whom you will meet in Stockton Civic Theatre’s new production of “The Skin of Our Teeth.”
The Thornton Wilder classic, which concludes its run May 1, hands father George, mother Maggie, son Henry and daughter Gladys the kind of crises that test not only whether life is worth living, but whether life can continue given catastrophes such as global freezing, global flooding, famine, pestilence and war.
Watching how the family copes with these tests of survival may make your own troubles seem small. And your curiosity will demand to know the fate of the family. Can they endure? Will they fall victim to the hazards of life and the whims of chance? Will they escape by the skin of their teeth?
The play confronts our non-heroic heroes with a host of survival challenges and the strains of family relationships, but the drama is laced with surprising humor, a touch of farce, a bit of wit and some out-the-door wisdom. All of which makes this new staging worth your time and ticket.
Chances are you’ve never seen a play like this one. Given its diverse elements and stop-and-go pacing, it isn’t any wonder theatergoers may ask “What’s going on here?” or “I like it, but when do I get it?”
My own reaction was: “Give me a little time and maybe I can figure it out.”
I have no doubt some members of the audience in which I sat are still working on the meaning of the play, which premiered in the darkest hours of World War Two and won Wilder the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama (though the play is more properly described as tragicomedy).
Other theatergoers with whom I talked had little problem sensing the connection between 1942 and 2022, given the dilemmas of our own day and age (maybe you’ve heard about the threats of climate change? The menace of Covid and its infinite variants? And no doubt you know that the pitiless dictator of the Kremlin has unleashed the dogs of war and genocidal catastrophe upon Ukraine?).
The wonder of “The Skin of Our Teeth” is the way in which Wilder pulls out all the stops, starting with a cheerful reporter giving us the latest news updates on calamity (a center-stage TV screen is the modern medium of the message). The opening scene that follows is a one-woman show for Sabina (Melissa Esau), the Antrobus household’s chatty maid. Listen closely as she unloads on the family she serves and steps outside her character to comment on the play itself.
A character in a play commenting on the play is your clue that Wilder is rewriting the rules of playwriting. Imagine unfolding the history of humanity in the space of the Antrobus living room and asking whether humankind has a future. Some of us might be pondering that very same question, as did wartime audiences of 1942. By presenting the mystery in an anything-goes style, it’s no wonder that “The Skin of Our Teeth” became as much a stage classic as the playwright’s “Our Town,” though a far more ambitious one.
If you plan to attend, get set for three acts of the unexpected, brought to life by director Dennis Beasley, Tim Graffham’s set design, a memorable performance by Kyle Beal as the much-troubled son, the tell-it-like-it-is outbursts of Sabina, and the costumed antics of Laura Hagler and Emily Frantz as the Antrobus household pets (and wait until you see just what kind of pets are frolicking in that household).
I’m still wondering whether father George’s duty as a beauty pageant judge with no political experience qualifies him to wrap the flag around himself and seek a presidential nomination. Given the fact that Wilder passed away in 1975, any resemblance to a certain real-life beauty pageant playboy who graduated to the Oval Office, insurrection at the Capitol and contempt of Congress is strictly coincidental.
You may not get all the allusions with which Wilder peppers his script, but after you leave the theater behind and put the pieces of the play in perspective, you may begin to appreciate the playwright’s imagination and improvisations, his take on the future of the human race, and the way he expands the boundaries and conventions of theater.
Be it from ice or flood or some of our own familiar failings, the human drama is on full display here, but so is human perseverance and a touch of comedy that lightens the dark. Don’t be fooled by an apparent crisis in the final act, when it appears that certain performers won’t be available to fulfill their roles and that substitutes, however inadequate, will have to be found in a hurry in order to go on with the show. It isn’t the end of the show. It’s all part of the act.
“The end of this play isn’t written yet,” Sabina explains in a last word about the uncertain future awaiting all of us and the hope that humanity isn’t doomed to repeat the worst of its history. “Maybe we can find a way to set things right again. For a while, at least.”
Maybe we can and maybe we can’t. But that, Wilder suggests, is up to us.
It’s worth a try, even if we manage to escape oblivion by dumb luck.
Or the skin of our teeth.
A retired reporter and editor, Stockton resident Howard Lachtman has written Delta-centered detective stories, Stockton Civic Theatre reviews and a variety of baseball tales for Soundings. In 2006. he was honored by the Stockton Arts Commission for “24 years of superior review and commentary on the performing and literary arts in Stockton.”