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REVIEW: Retrograde Alignment in The Skin of Our Teeth (Park Square)

The era-spanning cast of characters in Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth, now playing at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

The Skin of Our Teeth, produced by Girl Friday Productions and now playing at Park Square Theatre, seems to be a favorite of director and set designer Joel Sass. This production captures the play’s exquisite comedic flow as humankind faces extinction-level crises, only to pull through by the “‘skin of our teeth.” The play, which premiered in 1942, foreshadowed the Theatre of the Absurd and was influenced by Expressionism. Playwright Thornton Wilder incorporated these avant-garde theatrical elements, creating a more dynamic performance medium that encourages the audience to think. However, Joel Sass’s directing is less successful with these aspects of the play, reducing much of its thematic impact.

The play introduces us to Mr. Antrobus and Mrs. Antrobus, who are actually Adam and Eve, only 5000 years after Eden.  They have a daughter, Gladys, and they have a son called Henry whose real name is Cain.  Another son, Abel, passed away under suspicious circumstances.

Refugees at the door is one of the elements in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth that has aged surprisingly well. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Skin’s first act initially comes off as very relevant to an audience living amid worries about climate change. In this case, an approaching giant glacier represents the threat of a coming Ice Age, leading to Sabina, the maid (Alayne Hopkins), exclaiming one of the most iconic lines in the Theatre of the Absurd milieu: “The dogs are sticking to the sidewalks!” Then come refugees in need of food and shelter from the cold. In a scene echoing the current immigration debate, Sabina tells Mrs. Antrobus that she will quit if people who are not “respectable” are allowed to enter the house, even if those refugees include Moses and Homer.

Taj Ruler enters the stage with a sublime performance as the Telegraph Boy. Her natural quirkiness is in perfect sync with the seemingly random lines her character recites as part of a telegram from Mr. Antrobus to Mrs. Antrobus: “Ten tens make a hundred semi-colon consequences far reaching”, “Three cheers have invented the wheel”, etc. John Middleton’s performance as Mr. Antrobus is not as effective.  Mr. Antrobus pounds on the door of the house, demanding to be let in. as his language and manners evolve from barbarian to a railroad worker of the early twentieth century.  However, Middleton fails to capture Antrobus’ schizophrenic personality as a man living in several different historical periods at once.

Sabina, exuberantly played by Alayne Hopkins, drops the Fourth Wall seemingly at will to complain to the audience that she doesn’t understand a word of the play or even what’s going on.  The Fourth Wall also collapses several more times during the play, such as when it is announced that some actors were sent to the hospital for food poisoning and the play had to be interrupted because the understudies needed to quickly rehearse.  This startling juxtaposition of different realities is glossed over, as if it was merely a zany comedy bit.

In Act III, the Antrobus family puts their household back together after a terrible war. The cast’s performance and the strikingly designed set together artistically open the production with a palpable sense of universality. Neal Skoy is extraordinary as Henry Antrobus, who is revealed as the leader of the enemy army and who still wants to take down his father.  Also, John Middleton effectively portrays Mr. Antrobus as shifting between dealing with a dangerous foe and reaching out to his son.

Kirby Bennet, as Mrs. Antrobus, provides an important thematic and comic thread through all three acts.  Her stalwart characterization shows that men may either advance or subvert civilization but mothers have the perseverance necessary to save humanity from extinction.

Even though the director downplays some of the unusual theatrical elements, The Skin of Our Teeth stands out as an avant-garde theatre experience for the Park Square Theatre audience.

The Skin of Our Teeth plays through March 3 at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN.

Dan Reiva