Cutting Their Teeth on Wilder
How will the youth of today respond to Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Skin of Our Teeth?
When the play was first produced in 1942, it got raves from the critics and a Pulitzer Prize to boot, but many a John and Jane Q. Theatergoer didn't like it. Word has it that cab drivers would show up at the Plymouth during the first and second intermissions to pick up the people who'd had enough and were walking out. Did these teachers arriving at Montclair State know what their students were in for? I can remember what happened when I was teaching in 1970 and the school's drama director -- in his first year, mind you -- staged this show. He did it extraordinarily but neither the students nor their parents took to it. The following year, he did Harvey, and the year after that, The Diary of Anne Frank.
The "problem" is that The Skin of Our Teeth is an allegory, a form to which young people (and old) don't get much exposure. It starts with a '40s-style newsreel that announces the postponement of the End of the World and the invention of the wheel by Mr. Antrobus, a New Jersey resident. When the play proper begins, the Antrobuses' maid Sabina tells us that there's been a frightening cold wave, even though it's August -- and a woolly mammoth and a dinosaur soon show up. Wilder uses Mr. Antrobus to represent Man Since Time Began. He shows us that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and no matter what happens -- an Ice Age (Act I), a flood of Noah-like proportions (Act II), or the ravages of war (Act III) -- man will always survive, albeit by the skin of his teeth.
Fine; the seasoned theatergoer understands all of this. But the 499-seat house at Montclair was filled with a generation that watches reality shows, and Wilder chose an oblique way to express reality. Small wonder that, before the performance, Susan Kerner stood in front of the stage and made a speech. She alluded to the play's difficulties but stressed more that every audience member had a responsibility to give his attention to the actors -- and that the more everyone gave, the more the actors would give back. She also mentioned that she'd given thought to changing a second-act costume just for this student performance but she'd hold off until she saw how the first act went. I assumed she was referring to the bathing suit that Sabina would wear in Act II, which is set on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. In our 1970 high school production, our Sabina got wolf-whistles when she emerged in her scarlet red swimsuit. (By the way, she was Susan Hilferty, who's no stranger to costumes: She won a Tony in June for what she designed for the Wicked cast to wear.)
Kerner finished, came up the aisle, spotted me in H-101, paused to grip my arm, and widened her eyes in a "wish us luck" look. I certainly did. Happily, the kids were soon laughing at Sabina's statement that it was so cold, "the dogs are sticking to the sidewalk" -- and they laughed even harder when they heard that young Henry Antrobus would get out of high school "if they make the alphabet any easier." Okay. But how would they react to the moment when an actor supposedly misses his entrance and Sabina must retreat to her opening speech and start all over again? In fact, they thought it was hilarious and even applauded in approval.
Of course they loved the dinosaur and the mammoth, costumed as cuddly overstuffed animals with Equus-like skeletal heads. And they continued to listen. The kids even laughed when Henry was inadvertently called Cain. They were getting it! Best of all, I loved it when they saw some things that related to their own lives. The kids sure laughed at "All the nice men in the world are already married," for while they're still young, they're old enough to have heard this opinion plenty of times. Later, the girls moaned when both Antrobuses were horrified at Gladys' having put makeup on her face. They've been there.
When Mr. Antrobus said, "We've reached the top of the wave. There's not much more to be done! We're there!" the kids' laughter told me that they were oh-so-smartly reacting to his naïveté. But the laugh that really gratified me occurred when Antrobus was about to hit his son in anger and his wife protected the kid, pleading, "George, he's only 4,000 years old!" The kids understood that Henry represented all of mankind and his mistakes through the ages. Wonderful, I thought, as the act ended to rock concert cheers. I immediately went to the lobby, called my friend David Wolf, and expressed my excitement over the kids' responses. "Yeah," he droned, "but the first act's the fun one. Let's see how they do with the other two." I'd already thought of that and I told him so, adding, "But they've responded so much better than I'd anticipated that I think they just might take to the tougher acts, too."
When the actress playing Sabina entered in a one-piece bathing suit literally split down to her navel, the kids treated her with respect. But then Gladys entered -- not in red stockings, as Wilder indicated, but in scandalously skimpy lingerie. Ah, this was the outfit to which Kerner had referred! She'd obviously been buoyed by the kids' intelligence during the first act, for she couldn't have altered this glorified piece of cloth during the first intermission. It looked as if it were a seductive garment that someone had been stitching at Victoria's Secret, but when he went to lunch, someone from shipping came over, made a mistake, and sent out the half-finished "garment." The girls in the audience did express astonishment at its thong-thin audacity, but no one yelled anything inappropriate in reference to Colleen Finnegan's posterior. Maybe I'm too optimistic in saying that they were too busy listening to the words, but that's how it seemed to me. And they were still into the show when Mrs. Antrobus told her husband, "I didn't marry you because I loved you." Many of the girls gasped, because these still-young kids assume that love is the only reason people marry. Everyone laughed, too, when Mr. Antrobus said "Four score and ten million years ago" -- which showed me that teachers are still covering the Gettysburg Address. Act II ended with more rock concert cheers.
During the really tough third act, set in the Antrobuses' ravaged house after a disastrous war, I decided to keep track of how many coughs I heard. The final tally? None. Honest! Oh, there was one clearing of the throat, but not a single cough. In fact, the sad reality was that the kids could relate to "Now the world's an awful place and it always will be" because it confirmed what they've been thinking and fearing in the past few years. There was silence after the line, "Everyone pulled together in the war" because these kids sure haven't experienced that feeling as the WW-II generation did. But the most profound silence greeted "Peace will be here before we know it," for the kids already understand that they can't expect that. Nevertheless, they weren't so demoralized that they couldn't cheer the final curtain and the bows.
Of course, one reason why the kids loved the play was that Kerner's production was superlative. Gia McGlone was a distinctively different Sabina in each scene, Jon Hoche was a charismatic Mr. Antrobus, and Julie Crisante was astonishing in the tough role of a wife who's staunch but never a bitch. Everyone else was wonderful, too. I was particularly impressed by Robert McClure in the role of the Stage Manager, who, in one third-act scene, must take the stage and actually act. McClure looked so uncomfortable that he convinced me Kerner had used her actual stage manager. But no, I later learned: He's an actor, and he was perfect in aping unease on stage.
As I was leaving the theater, I asked one of the teachers if they'd been supplied with study guides in advance. Yes, they had, and that explains a good deal of the kids' attention. But study guides only work to a point, and many kids could have just figured that they'd have an afternoon out and wouldn't have to pay attention. Hardly. Part of the message of The Skin of Our Teeth is that we must put our faith in our youth -- and from what I saw here, I'm willing to do it. I'm hoping that the kids were inspired by the line about there being "the chance to build new worlds." It's their time.