Now and then you stumble on something rare and unexpected that feeds your soul; like finding a nest of baby birds in your backyard, or having a profound conversation with a random stranger. The Village Playhouse production of Thornton Wilder’s classic comedy The Skin of Our Teeth is such a treasure: rough-edged, fresh, touching and hilarious; even while writing about it, you cross your fingers and hope you don’t accidentally disturb its delicate magic.
With equal measures of post-depression Americana and Wilder’s cosmopolitan outlook (he hung out with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Sigmund Freud), The Skin of Our Teeth is a whimsical farce of the human condition. It’s both a portrait of a 1930s New Jersey family and an avant-garde exercise, with shifting frames of reference, metatheatre, and breaking the fourth wall side by side with Bible stories and middle-class American corn. It’s both irreverent toward itself (“I don’t understand this play at all,” complains Sabina, the eternal realist), and unironically humanist. The play consistently manages the tricky balance between goofy playfulness and serious wisdom. No wonder it won a Pulitzer prize.
And it seems written to order for today, when almost everyone feels the world crumbling around us: hard times, climate change, refugees, selfish hedonism, divided families—not only do the Androbus family’s trials seem to echo our own anxieties, but the play gives us a gentle, firm injunction not to despair. Another sign of the play’s surprising topicality: George and Maggie Androbus (a.k.a. the bible’s Adam and Eve, sort of), are like the twin poles of the American soul: George, the perennial idealist, is always dreaming up ways to improve the world; Maggie guards the good of her clan with a tiger’s ferocity. They don’t always get along; they are arguably not even happy together, but— in an implicit special delivery letter to our warring political factions— they survive several apocalypses (the Ice Age, the Great Deluge and a World War) with their ethics more or less intact. When Sabina, the “other woman” tries to come between them, she tellingly uses the Ayn-Randian line that some people are just superior, that the little people don’t count (the tactic doesn’t succeed in breaking up the marriage; we can hope it doesn’t succeed in breaking up the United States). Yet there are no truly evil people in this play; everyone—flawed, inconsistent, desperate—is enfolded in Wilder’s compassionate embrace.
Robert Zimmerman as George Androbus anchors the show with a spot-on performance: whether he’s playing the rumbustious head of the family, or being comically discombobulated by Sabina’s ample charms, or overcome with rage by the violence of his incorrigible son, Zimmerman’s larger-than-life persona, grounded in emotional truth, works perfectly in this highly theatrical play. He has a worthy foil in Joyce Sponcia as Maggie Androbus: rock-solid and indomitable, you can believe that she’s got a bit of the tiger in her. Alexis Fielek as Sabina, and Jessie Barr as the harried stage manager, both deliver the goods with performances that nicely balance between broad comedy and warm humanity. Director David Kaye keeps things moving, skillfully allowing each beat of this intricate script its own tone, from intense drama to all-out slapstick chaos. It’s never dull, and the three acts fly by.
This production is raw to the point of austerity: the black walls of the stage are scratched and scuffed; the scenic effects are simple cut-out shadows on a piece of bed sheet; a dinosaur is cardboard; a woolly mammoth is a piece of rolled-up fabric manipulated from offstage. But it’s impossible to tell whether or not these primitive design choices aren’t sophisticated works of postmodern art; we accept everything in a spirit of “let’s pretend.” Similarly, some of the actors lack the diction to deliver Wilder’s hyper-articulate speeches, and they sometimes ham it up in ways that would make a formally trained actor wince. But since the play is constantly winking at its own artifice anyway, it works beautifully; in the play’s finale, when amateur stand-ins are called in to replace actors who have all come down with food poisoning, it’s clear that Wilder favors heart over technical skill. And these players have tremendous heart. With all its rough edges, it’s hard to imagine the Milwaukee Rep, with their fancy professional actors and luxe production values, doing the play any more authentically.
Wilder isn’t usually mentioned among the greatest American playwrights—but he’s certainly the wisest. And he’s no doubt looking on the Village Playhouse from the celestial balcony and smiling proudly.
The Village Playhouse presents
The Skin of Our Teeth
by Thornton Wilder
April 8 through 16, 7:30 PM
April 17, 2:00 PM
1500 South 73rd Street
West Allis, Wisconsin
Tickets may be reserved without payment by sending an e-mail to SkinOfOurTeeth@villageplayhouse.org or calling (414) 207-4VPW (4879)