Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
This production of "The Skin of Our Teeth" is a striking reminder of just how inventive and ambitious Thornton Wilder was as a playwright. Written in 1942, as America was entering into the enormity of the madness of World War II, it attempts a storytelling of the modern world by integrating ancient myths and motifs, absurd contrasts of comedy with classically tragic themes.
With this play, Wilder continued his search for a new language, both theatrical and gestural, to express the dramatic exploration of humanity's ongoing struggle for sustenance and regeneration in the midst of social chaos and moral inadequacy. His theatrical adventurousness and entertainer's finesse is grounded in a profound humanism, a compassion for the essential dignity of our struggle for meaning and courage, for the values in our commonplace lives and in the context of our cultural heritage. He has an equally profound concern for the inherent violence and destruction constant in our history as a civilization, and in our interpersonal history.
This production is beautifully produced, with a brilliant scenic design by Michael Yeargan, and fine lighting by Marcus Doshi, and a first-rate cast led by an amazing performance by Howie Seago as Mr. Antrobus, and balanced by the powerful Ann Scurria as his wife, and Kristen Flanders as the temptress Sabina. Director Bartlett Sher clearly has a passion for this play and for conveying its complex and affecting content, but the show ultimately overwhelms him.
It is a very long show, not only in its millennial time-span, but also in its three-hour playing time. Each of its three acts takes nearly an hour, yet they seem to be of distinctly different lengths. The first goes by in a blink, a fast-paced, energetic and delightful invention and amusement, engaging us in the pure theatricality of the performance. The second, using the presentational format of a convention of the Order of Mammals, sustained the energy and momentum of the story while varying the manner of the telling in an intriguing and equally diverting way. The third act, set during humanity's emergence from the rubble of an unspecified war, simply unraveled. The tension, the sense of propulsive action became slack and enervated. The play's thematic statements began to seem ponderous, self-important and rather tedious. Most importantly, for me there wasn't enough urgency in the dilemma of Mr. Antrobus losing his conviction, his will and incentive, not enough danger in the inertia.
The cast certainly does their job. Howie Seago is an astonishing actor, his expression vivid and convincing. That he is deaf, with most of his lines being voiced by the masterful Laurence Ballard, while Mr. Seago signed the part, was never significant beyond being another means of theatrical gesture, another kind of speaking. His beautiful signing, movement so fluid and emphatic that it becomes almost a kind of musical accompaniment only continued the physicalization that Wilder impressed on all of his theatrical rhetoric. Seago has a classical physical comedy in line with the great silent comedians that felt just right with this archetypal character. His contrastingly strong and steadfast wife is played with assurance and conviction by Anne Scurria. She brings a sense of constancy and endurance to the role that felt like the very bedrock of survival. Kristen Flanders plays the role of Sabina with a tonic mixture of blonde ambition and the sympathetic commonplace, both within and from outside the play's action. I am constantly amazed by the range and accomplishment of this actress. The role of the Fortune Teller is also given a strong characterization, with striking presence, by Kate Wisniewski.
"The Skin of Our Teeth" is an important and engaging classic of American drama, and this production certainly brings us well into the arena of its deep concerns and imaginative power. That this production may not entirely succeed in sustaining the energy and drive throughout doesn't mean that it's unworthy, or even some sort of failure, but rather an incomplete success. There is more than enough that succeeds here to make the production worthwhile, and more than enough of substance in Thornton Wilder's sadly, bitterly contemporary concerns to earn our attention. The great wheels of humanity's experience turn endlessly, and just as Mr. Seago's hands reach out from the stage to speak to us, our own hands reach toward the stage to find our own experience there.