“My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” Job 19:20, The King James Bible
“Oh, oh, oh! Six o’clock and the master not home yet.” Anyone who has ever experienced a performance of Thornton Wilder’s seriocomic masterpiece, the Pulitzer Prize winning 1942 play, The Skin of Our Teeth, will remember that indelible phrase, first uttered by Tallulah Bankhead as the character Sabina. Sabina is usually scantily clad like a French parlor maid showing plenty of flesh while wiggling and posing seductively. Wilder’s play is nothing less than a panoramic view of human history rooted primarily in the Biblical view of the progression of mankind, with Greek roots as well as some Jewish mythology.
In this production, the show begins with a tuxedo-clad announcer (Jonathan Blandino), who recites “The News Events of the World.” Sandwiched among the trivial are such events as the End of the World and the Ice Age.
Wilder takes iconic characters of the human past and makes them semi-modern. The master of the house, Mr. Antrobus (Mark Lewis) is an everyman, the true descendant of Adam. He busies himself with inventing the alphabet, the wheel, and mathematics. His wife, Mrs. Antrobus (Melora Marshall), is a wise, stay-at-home mom, with two children, Henry (William Holbrook) and Gladys (Gabrielle Beauvais). The Antrobuses used to have twin boys, but one died, and Henry, a restless, impulsive youth who likes to throw stones, has a mark on his forehead. The Antrobuses live in Excelsior, New Jersey, where the Ice Age has returned and, as Sabina (the incomparable Willow Geer), has it, “The dogs are sticking to the sidewalks.” It is so cold that the animals, a dinosaur and a mammoth, crowd in the house to get close to a flickering fire.
It is not in the program, but in the original text of The Skin of Our Teeth, the hottie maid is listed as Lily Sabina, a name derived from Lillith, who, in Jewish folklore, was Adam’s first wife, a wanton woman who wouldn’t knuckle under to him and who split from the Garden of Eden.
The surges of human history are lampooned in this three-act play, first with the recurring Ice Age, then with a devastating flood that dampens a political event that takes place on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City where Antrobus has been elected president of the Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans. And finally, there is the disaster of world war.
Other important characters who make appearances are Homer, Moses, the Muses, a Judge and a Doctor. Especially important is the Boardwalk Fortune Teller (The powerful Earnestine Phillips), who says the sooth, reads the beads, and tells it like it is in no uncertain terms.
This mash-up of religion, history, and mythology, written at the start of the United States participation in the conflagration of World War II, is especially pertinent in our own time of crisis, cruelty, and looming worldwide disaster. That it makes us laugh is a bitter blessing.
Under the inspired direction of Ellen Geer, the seven principals players above, and thirteen ensemble members— Dylan Booth, John Brahan, Matthew Domenico, Colin Guthrie, Margaret Kelly, Shubhit Noor, Shane McDermott, Matthew Pardue, Dante Ryan, Gina Shansey, Sky Wahl, Isaac Wilkins and Woan Ni Wooi—deliver an exuberant, exhilarating show.
The costume design is by Holly Hawk, lighting design is by Zach Moore, sound design is by Grant Escandón, the prop masters are Danté Carr and Sydney Russell, and creature creation is by Puppet Time. Kim Cameron is the production stage manager.
I was awed by the show as a teenager, and this production exceeds my memories.
The Skin of Our Teeth continues in rotating rep with Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Moby Dick-Rehearsed, An Enemy of the People, and Gin Game (opening on August 17) through September 29.