Skin Of Our Teeth

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday May 31, 2016

Don Alder as Mr. Antrobus and Linda Alper as Mrs. Antrobus
Don Alder as Mr. Antrobus and Linda Alper as Mrs. Antrobus  

"The Skin of our Teeth" is a play that is not often produced. It has so many cast members and so many design challenges that theatres opt not to invite that complexity onto their boards.

Adding to the heft of the physical pieces is the devilishly intertwined "plot" wrought by Thornton Wilder, his characteristic self-awareness regularly bleeding through the fourth wall. This is the Schrodinger's Cat of theatre: the people onstage are simultaneously in and not in a play.

I'm a fan of Thornton Wilder. His play "Our Town" managed to make me profoundly glad for the life I have, for the time I have to live it, and desperately aware of the futility of that life. Unlike many existentialists, who veer into the muck of despair and wallow, Wilder finds that perfect balancing point of joy and despair, the fine needle's point fulcrum on which these warring feelings carefully rest. It's an opportunity to examine how we spend the time we have, and make choices to elevate what's really important.

In "Skin of our Teeth," which won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the elements requiring intellectual juggling are so massive, the number of them so overwhelming, a deft hand is required to hold all of it aloft. At Artist's Repertory Theatre, an attempt was made at staging this behemoth. At times, the effort sails along effectively, if not lyrically; at other times, it buckles under the weight.

The plot, if I may awkwardly summarize, is this: a family that lives in a New Jersey suburb is constantly worried about their survival, unsure whether they will weather the coming apocalyptic storm. They are beset by dinosaurs, woolly mammoths (who require milking), an approaching Ice Age (glacier reports provided on the nightly news), and have endured plagues of Biblical proportions.

The father is on the verge of great discoveries, including the entire alphabet and the wheel, which he brings home, along with bags of groceries, which he gives his kids as a toy. The mother is a pearls and crinolines woman, with a tight grip on her children's development and a loose grasp on her husband's affections.

There is a housemaid, dressed alluringly in a short skirt and black stockings. It is she who vies for the husband's affections, and she who provides the fourth-wall-breaking commentary throughout.

The play shifts to a post-Ice Age election year, in which the father is running for office, having successfully discovered many important things. A flood comes, requiring two-by-two salvation of all the animals, and of the family, and of the maid.

It shifts again to a post-apocalyptic age in which the wife has bunkered down with her daughter, who has given birth to a child they both protect and care for.

The themes of family, of gender roles, of the futility of expectations in the face of truly important events, of the endlessness of humanity, of courage in the face of challenges, all battle for attention.

There was a distinctly feminist thrust to this production, or perhaps it exists in the original work, but it's difficult to say, since there was a significant amount of improvisation apparent in the play. There are also themes of parenting, infidelity, love, marriage, maturity... there's a lot to unpack in this show. A. Lot.

With the considerable talents of Linda Alper, Val Landrum, Don Alder, Sarah Lucht and Vana O'Brien, and the clever and thoughtful design of Megan Wilkerson (Scenic Design) and Kristeen Willis Crosser (Lighting Design), there is much to buoy this production. The appearance of Lauren Modica, with a voice that sends shivers up the spine, was particularly enchanting.

Indeed, there's much to admire about this production, not the least of which is the initial decision to make the attempt in the first place. The set and lighting designs are, in themselves, a marvel; the use of live video alongside live acting amplifies the sense of the surreal, placing the story in yet another dimension.

While it's a lengthy production, it's worth staying seated during an intermission (there are two!) to watch the stage hands change the scene. In fact, watching the change of scene enhances the message of endlessness; "here we go again, same stuff, just in a different arrangement."

I am sorry to say, however, that this production didn't get off the ground as I would have hoped. Perhaps it's the fault of too many moving pieces in too small a space, or the weight of its self-awareness that remains in the "hey, we're in a play!" category and never reaches the wry self-effacing humanity I suspect is embedded in the original material.

Wilder's adventurous spirit in plunging into unknown territory is exciting, and this kind of fractured-expectations material is thrilling. But *something* prevents this absurdist leviathan from lifting off.

"The Skin of our Teeth" runs through June 19 at Artists Repertory Theatre Alder Stage, 1515 SW Morrison St, Portland. For tickets and information, call 503-241-1278 or go to http://www.artistsrep.org/onstage/2015-16-season/the-skin-of-our-teeth/

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.