Reviewed by George Basler
Put simply, Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth is a play you’ll either love or hate.
Written in 1939, and first performed in 1942, the tragicomedy totally rejects naturalism (some would say logic) for abstraction, allegory and absurdity. In short, it’s one of the most bizarre, and polarizing, mainstream dramas ever produced on the American stage.
The play was a hit when it first opened on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. But time has not been kind. The Skin of Our Teeth rarely gets performed these days, probably because as Tony-winning director Bartlett Sher once said: “It’s a hard, hard, hard, hard show.”
So the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players deserve credit for taking on the daunting task of staging the play, which opened this past weekend (March 3-5) at their Owego playhouse and will run weekends through March 19.
But, while the company merits applause for not playing it safe, the production is an uneven one, with a wobbly first act followed by two acts that play better.
The play follows members of the suburban Antrodus family — relocated to Owego for this production — as they live through the Ice Age, the Biblical flood and the aftermath of a devastating war. The clan is made up of Mr. Antrobus, an inventor genius; his wife, and their two children, a son and a daughter.
The play breaks every rule you can think of. Farcical elements are intermixed with Biblical references and serious topics. Characters repeatedly break the fourth wall to comment on the action and make fun of the play. A production has to balance a wide range of theatrical styles, so Diane Arbes, the director, had a big job on her hands.
Act I takes place in the Antrobus’ Owego home. It starts promisingly enough with a parody of newsreels, projected on a screen, which humorously reports the coming Ice Age.
The act quickly bogs down, however. Nothing is very funny, and the action drags. A main problem is a lack of clarity. The act is filled with Biblical symbolism, but the Ti-Ahwaga production fails to make any of this symbolism clear.
Not that it’s all the production’s fault. Wilder’s writing is pretty muddled on its own terms. The plot creaks, the story is tedious and the weirdness element is off the charts.
The one saving grace is Talia Saraceno’ spirited performance as Sabrina, the family’s wisecracking maid/femme fatale. Saraceno draws laughs when she stops the action to mock the play, and her participation in it.
Happily, the Ti-Ahwaga production improves markedly in Act II and Act III. The second act takes place in Atlantic City, where the family has gone to see Mr. Antrobus take over the presidency of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals. The act starts on a warm, sunshiny day and ends with the apocalypse of the Great Flood.
A main strong point is Peggy Medina as Mrs. Antrobus. She is funny and emotionally engaging as a no-nonsense character who works fiercely to keep the family together.
The other actors also seem to find much firmer footing in this act. This is especially true of Seth Vaughn as the blustering paterfamilias. Director Arbes also seems to find her footing and strikes the right balance between humor and a growing sense of dread that something really bad is going to happen.
Credit also should go to the effective lighting by Ron Harris and Gerald Arbes, which heightens the act’s emotional transition.
Wilder’s tone in Act III is all over the map from madcap humor to deep seriousness.
The act begins with the cast stopping the show to explain that several of the lead actors have come down with food poisoning. The stage manager comes to the rescue by recruiting backstage personnel as volunteers and rushing them through rehearsal. Their hurried readings of Aristotle, Spinoza and the Bible are genuinely funny, and Harris does a good, humorous turn as the harried stage manager.
The act then turns serious with the Antrobus family members debating their role, if any, in salvaging civilization after a traumatic war. The debate is the most intense part of the play, and the cast — including Shane Smith as the son and Francesca Decker as the daughter — play it effectively.
The final scene, in which the ragtag collection of substitutes come on to the stage to quote the great philosophers and scripture, is especially effective.
Still, enjoyment of the act — and indeed the entire play — requires a large taste for the absurd and a willingness to sit through Wilder’s abstract and allegorical musings.
In short, after a muddled start, the Ti-Ahwaga cast makes a decent effort in a very difficult play. But don’t expect this production to resolve the debate over the worth of Wilder’s play. Is it an unappreciated classic, or a play that deserves to be sitting on the shelf collecting dust? I suspect various audience members will have radically different opinions.
IF YOU GO: Remaining performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through March 19 at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center, 42 Delphine St., Owego. Tickets at $20 ($18 for students and senior citizens) can be purchased online at www.tiahwaga.com or by calling the box office at 607-687-2130.