Review: “The Skin of Our Teeth”

Kelly O’Sullivan and Linda Gillum -Photography by: Nomee Photography

RECOMMENDED

Where: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Nov. 12
Tickets: $42.50-$52.50
Phone: 773-404-7336

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

When Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Skin of Our Teeth” opened in late 1942, the country was just emerging from the Great Depression and on the cusp of entering World War II, so the playwright’s tragicomic tribute to humankind’s resilience and will to survive repeated natural and man-made disasters was especially timely.

Fast forward 75 years, and things haven’t changed much. Devastating hurricanes and raging fires fill daily news reports. Risks of war with other nations are escalating, and domestic violence seems to be increasing. Environmental destruction and a refugee crisis are among the many other problems facing us.

Of course, the cyclical nature of these trials and tribulations is part of Wilder’s point, and if the play comes across today as a bit naïve in its underlying optimism, that doesn’t make it any less apropos.

Remy Bumppo realizes that, and this production, cannily directed by Krissy Vanderwarker, combines the quaint charm of a period setting with enough contemporary references to up the humor quotient without diminishing the original. In addition, the limitations of the physical staging serve the work well, giving it a homespun quality that fits perfectly with penchant for breaking down the fourth wall.

Essentially a triptych replete with Biblical and literary references, Wilder’s play focuses on the Antrobus (“human”) family: George (Kareem Bandealy), inventor of the wheel, alphabet, and multiplication tables; his wife, Maggie (Linda Gillum), archetypal 1950s mother and protector of her children with a slight proto-feminist streak; their angry and rebellious son, Henry (Matt Farabee), formerly “Cain,” who killed his brother; and daughter Gladys (understudy Kayla Raelle Holder on opening night), the apple of her father’s eye. Their maid, Sabina (Kelly O’Sullivan), who continually complains to the audience about not understanding the play, among other things, is sort of the eternal “other woman.” In Act II, she morphs into a beauty queen who seduces George; in Act III, she’s a fighter in the seven year’s war before resuming the role of maid in peace time.

After the Announcer’s (Annie Prichard) report blending local references and news in Wilder’s script—with projections by scenic designer Yeaji Kim—we go to the Antrobus home in suburban New Jersey, a mix of typical 1950s furnishings and anachronisms including the fire used for heating and the dinosaur and wooly mammoth (in delightful costumes by Mieka van der Ploeg) who share the home. A great wall of ice is rapidly approaching—the Ice Age—and when George arrives home from the office, and its not a foregone conclusion that he’ll make it, he decides these animals will have to go, so the house can accommodate the refugees—Homer, Moses, The Muses, et all—gathered outside.

In Act II, set on the Boardwalk at Atlantic City, the family is attending George’s swearing-in as president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans. While he exhorts the attendees to “enjoy themselves”–in a speech with not-so-suble allusions to..well, you know—and Miss Fairweather, aka Sabina in a different guise, tries to take him away from his wife, increasingly dire weather reports forecast the flood, and the scene ends with Mr. Antrobus standing in for Noah.

Here and throughout, Bandealy’s George is very intense, far more than so than the suburban Everyman he’s supposed to be, or to at least seem. This approach serves him best in Act III, when he returns to his home from seven years of war, only to face the most significant battle, with the angrier-than-ever Henry, who fought on the other side. Farabee is at his peak here, his vulnerability mixing with the rage. And Gillum is just right as the all-forgiving mother who’s been hiding out in the cellar with Gladys.

This final act also has an interesting homage to the value of preserving books and knowledge, presented as a break from the play in which the stage manager, costume assistant, et al, replace cast members with food poisoning and have to “rehearse” their parts as planets and such for a pageant that we’re told would have been lovely. It’s a device that, like several others, would have been novel in 1942 but not so now, yet I must admit I still found it rather charming.

That’s pretty much my general reaction to Remy Bumppo’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” The ensemble, which also features Charin Alvarez as a Cassandra-like Fortune Teller, is in fine form, and especially with O’Sullivan as our spirited, if disgruntled, guide, the evening flies by, ending pretty much as it began because, of course, everything goes on.