As our precarious moment in history continues, theater artists have found repeated resonance in work dating from the World War II era.
Not the triumphal postwar years, but the period leading up to the war, when ordinary citizens were coming to grips with the fact that a profound evil was rising with potentially devastating consequences, and that neutrality was not an option. One way or another, the world was on the brink of an unprecedented test and a seismic transformation.
That period was explored from an American perspective in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine (1941), produced by the Guthrie Theater in 2017; and from Europe in Robert E. Sherwood's Idiot's Delight (1936), staged by Girl Friday Productions that same year. Now, the latter company is returning to that season of turmoil with its new production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (1942).
Self-described as "the little company that does big plays," Kirby Bennett's Girl Friday mounts shows at the sustainable rate of one every two years — and it's invariably worth the wait. Skin of Our Teeth sees the company moving up from Park Square Theatre's subterranean Andy Boss Thrust Stage to the larger Proscenium Stage upstairs.
The production makes good use of the expanded canvas, filling the stage and occasionally spilling out into the audience with its vast allegory that spans the course of human history. That's right: the course of human history. Even longer if you consider the presence of a dinosaur, though in a proto-Flintstones flight of fancy, the great lizard appears in the guise of a family pet.
Under the clear-eyed direction of Joel Sass, Skin of Our Teeth isn't nearly as challenging as its meta-theatrical, surrealist-tinged scenario might lead you to fear, but it's still bracing enough that when the audience returned after the first of two intermissions on Wednesday night, there had been some evident self-culling of patrons who decided they weren't ready for a play where a single harried family bears the responsibility for all of human prehistory, calling for the audience to burn their chairs to stave off the coming ice age — while the maid complains about the absurdity of all and repeatedly tries to tender her notice.
The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is an American existential epic, with the sprawling excess that implies. For all its length (the Girl Friday production runs over two and a half hours) and ambition, though, Skin of Our Teeth remains rooted in a recognizable family that struggles, with comedy and pathos, to stay happy, healthy, and passably wealthy over the course of an artificially elongated span of millennia.
Bennett herself plays the matriarch, Mrs. Antrobus (do the etymology yourself, or Sass will help in his program note). She tends the home fires, often to her consternation, while her husband (John Middleton) is out inventing the wheel or serving as elected president of the human race. Their kids (Kathryn Fumie and Neal Skoy) squabble and beg for their allowance, which is a big ask given that the strapping boy slew his brother Abel and comes to symbolize the persistent threat of humanity's impulse to violence. Shouldn't he at least be grounded for that?
The family's longtime companion Sabina, tasked with representing the tragedy of lust (in addition to dusting and making coffee), is played by Alayne Hopkins, alternating between lacerating asides and broad screwball caricatures that include an Atlantic City beauty queen. A stage manager (Sam Landman) occasionally emerges to get Sabina back on track when she loses patience with the whole conceit.
The play-within-a-play framing both throws a bone to the audience (the dinosaur gets his own, with some greens for the woolly mammoth): Sabina gives us permission to be confused or frustrated. It also underlines Wilder's Shakespearean suggestion that we're playing out an epic drama, fighting for hope and meaning in the face of repeated tests that threaten to overwhelm us. If it's not an ice age, it's armageddon or the Great Flood.
Wilder's allusion to Biblical plagues and world-ending disasters feels distressingly relevant to our own time, when fears of nuclear-armed conflagration demand equal time with the threat of a changing climate. If Wilder could see the headlines of 2019, he might write a fourth act, and he'd be hard-pressed to make it more optimistic than the conclusion he crafted in the looming shadow of World War II.
Sass and the Girl Friday team (including MVP costume designer Kathy Kohl) saddle this daunting work and ride it through to its cosmic climax in a production that has fun with Wilder's satire without losing sight of the desperate humanity at its core. Middleton and Bennett know exactly where they're going with this material, and surrounding performers including the indomitable Hopkins and exuberant Fumie ensure the show's energy never slacks.
It's kind of exhausting, but in a good way. Like human history itself...or so we hope.
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