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The Skin of Our Teeth

Bartlett Sher's deft direction can't keep Thornton Wilder's play from sinking under its own weight. logo
Howie Seago, Laurence Ballard, and Anne Scurria
in The Skin of Our Teeth
(© Chris Bennion)
Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, now being given a new production at the Intiman Theatre, is like a loopy, semester-long survey course in the history of the western world, crammed with the playwright's all-time favorites: an Ice Age, a visit from Moses, a convention of mammals, and the Jersey shore. In spite of an imaginative, break-the-rules approach -- a 20th century family keeps a pet baby dinosaur; actors break character to comment on the script -- the professor is a traditionalist at heart, prone to long-winded speeches that wear the audience down and stretch the action to a marathon three hours.

Wilder depicts humanity's age-long struggle for survival through the Antrobus family, simultaneously a middle-class 1942 New Jersey clan, and allegorical stand-in for all of humankind. In a typical day at the office, Mr. Antrobus (Howie Seago, a noted deaf actor) invents the alphabet. Mrs. Antrobus (Anne Scurria) struggles to keep the home fires burning and the family together. She's thwarted by son Henry (J.D. Tracy), who has dispatched his brother Abel with a rock, and the wisecracking maid, Sabina (Kristin Flanders, in a pitch-perfect Jersey accent), who's constantly on the make for Mr. A.

In each of the play's three acts, the Antrobuses have built their sand castle, only to see it washed away by a succession of catastrophes. Michael Yeargan's bi-level set adroitly navigates the action from suburb to Atlantic City boardwalk to post-war devastation. The family home is a platform suspended several feet over the stage floor, morphing into a ship to escape the flood, then upended during the unexplained war of the final act. As the family rebuilds itself, Mrs. Antrobus briskly flips a switch that motors the platform back into its rightful place -- the launching pad for the next round.

Director Bartlett Sher deftly balances touches like these -- stage machinery in full view, technicians in the wings -- with a lavish buffet of visual treats: A woolly mammoth snuggles up to Mrs. Antrobus like a purring cat, red and white striped beach cabanas dot the Jersey shore, bathing beauties cavort with conventioneers in bright red fezzes, and the poet Homer (Laurence Ballard) and a collection of muses huddle round the Antrobus family fire while outside, the ice crashes and the storm rages.

Homer is the first of a succession of characters to voice the lines for Seago, who simultaneously signs in ASL. It's a smart concept; Seago isn't just playing Mr. Antrobus, but all the men who have walked the earth since Adam. The technique adds another layer to an already-complex play, but it also slows the rhythm of the production. There's usually a distracting lag between Ballard's voice, Seago's elegant signing, and the next actor's responding voice.

As Sabina, Flanders has the fun of mocking the script, and her needling commentary holds the production together in the first and final acts. She starts out like a gun moll in act one, cascading blonde curls and bright red lips setting off her black and white maid uniform. She comes into her own in the final act, looking like an ad for the French Revolution, but the end of the war only sends her back to the kitchen to start all over again.

Wilder was challenging theatrical conventions, but clearly not interested in upending any social ones. The production bogs down when it's time for the speeches, which feel creaky and heavy-handed. Sher sets up each with a carefully composed tableau, signaling that it's time to sit up and listen while Mrs. Antrobus quotes the Bible or Mr. Antrobus quotes the philosophers.

Straining mightily to inspire awe at the human spirit and our capacity to shoulder on, The Skin of Our Teeth eventually founders under its own weight.

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