Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn
milwaukeesfs

Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa, “The Skin of Our Teeth”

On Friday evening, April 15th, we went to the Inspiration Studios performance space to see the Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa’s production of Thornton Wilder’s 1942 play, “The Skin of Our Teeth.” I was curious to see it, because it is a famous play in American letters, and won Wilder a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, the play has not aged well, in my opinion.

The play concerns the Antrobus family, who, in the play’s present day, reside in a pleasant residential neighborhood in New Jersey. Mr. Antrobus works in New York—inventing the alphabet, multiplication tables, and the wheel. It soon appears that Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (Robert A. Zimmerman and Joyce Sponcia) are more than 5000 years old. They may or may not be “Adam and Eve”, but they have a son, Cain (now known as “Henry”) (Scott Sorenson), who long ago killed his brother with a thrown stone. Henry, who seems a bit simple-minded, has anger issues and a slingshot, with which he is deadly dangerous. “Henry” has a scar on his forehead that he must keep covered or fear his father’s wrath. Whether Henry/Cain was injured by his brother and lashed out at him, or by his father in punishment is not revealed. They also have a younger daughter, named Gladys (Jordyn Stewart).

The household is completed by their maid of all work, Sabina (Alexis Fielek), pet dinosaur, and a woolly mammoth that Sabina is expected to milk as part of her duties.

Wilder breaks the “fourth wall” repeatedly in this play, beginning early on with Sabina’s monologue, in which she confesses to us she has no idea what the play is about and doesn’t understand a word of it. We are also occasionally reminded that it IS a play, as when the put-upon stage manager (Jessie Barr0 dashes across the stage in response to a “missed” entrance.
The New Jersey of 1949 is a mélange of times. Not only is Antrobus’ seemingly anachronistic work of value, a glacier is threatening New York, and Antrobus takes in refugees who include Moses and Homer.

The first act in particular seems heavily influenced by the “funny papers” and radio comedies of the forties. Antrobus is supposedly a domestic tyrant that all live in fear of, but the shrewish Mrs. Antrobus runs the house. Although Henry and Gladys are over four thousand years old, they are infantilized by their parents treatment and remain eternal children. The “Bickersons”-style dialog between Mr. and Mrs. May have been funny back then, but it just struck me as depressingly abusive. After dishing out expository lumps, the act ends with pointless noisy chaos.

The second act has the plot of a classic sex farce, or would have, if there were actually any sex. The glacier having receded, the Antrobus family is in Atlantic City on holiday, where Antrobus (whose list of inventions now includes beer) has been elected President of the Loyal Order of Mammals. As we have found, Sabina was at one time Antrobus’ second wife, whom he “brought back from the Sabines,” and, for a time exalted over Mrs. Antrobus. However, Antrobus returned to the mother of his children and reduced Sabina to the status of servant. She is scheming to win him back, disguised as “Miss Fairweather,” a beauty pageant winner. Her cynical speech to Antrobus to the effect that most people are straw men and pretend to have emotions although they really don’t, is one of the more biting bits of the play. She’s succeeding in her purpose, too, until the actress flatly refuses to perform the sex scene, resulting in a debate on stage.

After it’s decided to continue as though the scene had gone on, the act ends with a hurricane warning escalating to “end of the world” level, and the Antrobus family takes shelter in a large ship, along with numerous pairs of other mammals, thus bringing the Noah story into the mix. One intriguing character in this act is the boardwalk fortune teller (Scott Stenstrup) who claims to infallibly tell the (usually dire) future from faces, but declares, “if anyone says he can tell you the past, he is a charlatan.”

The third act is the most powerful and effective. It is seven years later, and the world, including New Jersey, has been devastated by war. Sabina, Henry, and Mr. Antrobus have all gone off to fight, with Henry and his father on opposing sides. Peace has been declared at last, and one by one, the fighters return home. Sabina comes first, finding that Mrs. Antrobus and Gladys, who now has a baby, have been living a wretched existence using the basement as a bunker. As Mrs. Antrobus begins preparing the house for her husband’s return (and dragooning Sabina back into her subservient role) Sabina sighs that she actually liked the war.

Enter Henry, weary and hungry, the scarred place on his forehead freshly bloodied. No longer a dullard, Henry/Cain is fully awake, a mature warrior, and angry. They give him food, and he falls asleep. Antrobus (the inventor of gunpowder) enters, drawing his gun. He has a bloody bandage over the same spot on his forehead, his own “mark of Cain.” In the scene that follows, Henry demands that Antrobus kill him. He repudiates his family, wanting no father, no mother, no sister, only wanting to be alone—in death. Antrobus declares that “it’s easier to fight you than live with you. War is a pleasure compared to what faces us now.” Antrobus wavers, until Henry throws himself at Antrobus’ throat. It’s only when the stage manager joins the rest of the cast intervening that we realise that this isn’t in the supposed script—the “actor” playing “Henry” is having a flashback to abuse suffered by him at the hands of his own father.

This was by far the most striking sequence in the play, and an excellent acting job by Scott Sorenson, who made juvenile Henry, warrior Henry, and “actor” Henry three distinct voices.
When things settle down, the play ends where it began, with Sabina preparing the house for Antrobus’ arrival from work, saying to the audience, “this is where you all came in, we have to go on for ages and ages yet. You can all go home, you see, the end of the play isn’t written yet.”
All the actors did a fine job with the material, presenting a lively and energetic production, with some high drama in the third act. The Village Playhouse made very creative use of the limited facilities available at Inspiration Studios, the minimalist set being a frequent choice for this show based on what I’ve looked up. So, it’s kind of a glass-half-full situation—getting a good presentation of a play I didn’t care for. Kudos to the Village Playhouse for their artistic efforts, not so much for choice of vehicle.

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Tags: theatre
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