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How to Survive a Depression Without Really Crying 

Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth

Thursday, Jun 26 2003
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Photo by Christopher Kuhl

A quick look back at the slogans used by early progressives, labor union leaders in the ’30s and anti-war protesters in the ’60s raises the discomfiting question in the fledgling years of this century of what exactly was accomplished by all the sound and fury. As one octogenarian suffragette put it last week, “The picket signs we were using then we’re still using today.”

Despite hard-won liberties and civil rights again being snatched away; despite new foreign and domestic belligerences and ineptitudes that resemble old ones; despite a “megaphone media” validating official double-spoken explanations; and, despite the seemingly inexorable chill upon our democracy, people must keep protesting in the streets, she insisted. Voting is not sufficient.

Her statement was an homage to Sisyphus and to his rock that has tumbled down the mountain many times before. The aging progressive and her compatriots embody a kind of faith that forms the crux of Thornton Wilder’s 1942 play, The Skin of Our Teeth.

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In Act 3, George Antrobus (i.e., Adam from the Book of Genesis) — inventor of the wheel and the alphabet, and survivor of an ice age and a biblical flood — returns from the ravages of a war to his Excelsior, New Jersey, living room. People are reputed to be dancing around bonfires as George despondently tells his wife of 5,000 years that he’s finally “lost it . . . lost the most important thing of all, the desire to begin again, to start building.”

“Listen!” his wife answers, stridently. “The only thought we clung to was that you were going to bring something good out of this suffering. We can suffer whatever’s necessary; only give us back that promise.”

Maggie Antrobus (a stand-in for Eve) is from a mid-century American generation of pointed optimists in a world of pointless adversity — like Dust Bowl migrants facing famine and flood without complaint. (“Don’t forget, we made it through the Depression by the skin of our teeth,” chirps the Antrobus’ maid, Sabina.) They belong to what’s probably the most heroic chapter of American history, and, in dramatizing Maggie, Wilder appears to have been both fascinated and flummoxed by her jocular, clench-jawed endurance of George’s infidelity, of her son’s homicidal rages, and of the most harrowing winters on record. Contrary to popular mythology, Wilder was neither an optimist nor a romantic; he was a cynic writing about optimism and the beauty of the moment — Samuel Beckett’s older literary cousin.

The failure to differentiate between optimism and Wilder’s stark appraisal of it is the best explanation for The Skin of Our Teeth and his 1938 Our Town (both Pulitzer Prize–winning plays) belonging to the pantheon of most frequently produced works by high school and community theaters. Because both plays use folksy dialogue and show an intricate understanding of small-town life juxtaposed against a grandiose backdrop of passing millennia, they are frequently mistaken for being sweeter than they really are. In fact, Wilder’s cosmic perspective is bittersweet at best, heavily influenced by the writings of James Joyce. The spirit (and spirits) of Joyce’s The Dead permeates Our Town, while The Skin of Our Teeth is, by Wilder’s own admission, an American theatrical recapitulation of Finnegans Wake. (It’s widely believed that a plagiarism scandal in the ’40s over Skin being lifted from Finnegans Wake prevented Wilder from winning the Nobel Prize. But as Wilder points out, literature is not a “dispute among heirs” but a torch race.)

 

Though Samuel Beckett is largely credited for melting time in the theater, Thornton Wilder came up with it first. It could be argued that Beckett’s elliptical structure in Waiting for Godot, rendering Act 2 as a kind of instant replay of Act 1, with the characters only vaguely aware that they’re caught in an endless loop, was actually borrowed from The Skin of Our Teeth, which is crafted as a series of American-know-how recoveries from a litany of disasters.

In Act 1, a wall of ice descends upon the Eastern seaboard, where the Antrobus family, George and Maggie (Jason and Alicia Adams) and their kids, Henry and Gladys (Leo Marks and Colleen Kane), cope with the encroaching cold, with refugee neighbors and with getting their pet dinosaurs out of the house.

Act 2 focuses on a carnival in Atlantic City, with George and Maggie’s marital frustrations, with the kids’ violence and neediness, and the arrival of the Perfect Storm. The family survives due to their spotting an Ark in the distance, a stroke of luck.

Act 3 follows the devastation from some unspecified war that has no prior mention in the play. And George’s expression of fatigue, if not despair, at the prospect of having to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, cuts to the heart of the matter.

If you believe, as most of our media suggest, that the peril of our times is being overstated by malcontents, The Skin of Our Teeth resembles an antique curio. But if you feel somewhere deep in your bones that we’re lurching toward the edge of a cliff, the play becomes strikingly relevant, as though, being about crises, it depends on crisis for its sustenance. (Wilder wrote it near America’s entry into World War II. He had served in the Army during World War I, and harbored no illusions about the glory of war.)

In staging his revival of the play at Evidence Room, Stefan Novinski distinguishes himself, yet again, as a core member of topflight local stage directors. That Novinski’s The Skin of Our Teeth appears so postmodern is more a testament to Wilder’s theatrical innovations than to the director’s. Novinski’s device of having maid Sabina (Ames Ingham, as a petulant and flirtatious imp) open the play in front of the curtain holding a dismembered Barbie doll is completely in line with Wilder’s oft-stated desire to shatter the fourth wall and to make the audience cognizant of the theater’s tricks — even before Bertolt Brecht started hammering at the same conceit. Sabina breaks character railing against her awful lines and the terrible play she’s trapped in. Yet every word she says, or some variation thereof, is in the text, and Novinski’s staging is almost entirely faithful to it (though he excised Hebrew and Greek lines by refugees and an entire racial dimension).

Donna Marquet’s set includes a bare platform stage with splashes of mismatching furniture, a couple of desks in the exposed backstage, where actors sit at microphones providing sound effects and voice-overs. A pivotal seduction scene of George by a beauty contestant (Ingham again) is entirely voiced by Marks. Juggling the raw emotion of infidelity with Marks’ slightly mocking tone works in tandem with, but never consumes, the passion. And it’s entirely in the service of Wilder’s mix of vaudeville, cabaret and lugubrious poignancy.

Jason Adams attacks the role of George like a manic young Einstein, eyes bugging with a fever that rises and falls between frustration and hope. As George’s wife, Alicia Adams redefines the phrase “spine of steel,” a model of purse-lipped rectitude and dignity fraying. Kane does her androgynous daughter, Gladys, as a squeaky-voiced little bull in a china shop, pained that everyone is so angry and frustrated. But the character who most represents our country in these reactionary times is her brother, Henry, who slew his older sibling with a slingshot. In a performance of riveting subtlety, Marks mutes Henry’s fratricidal fury into a kind of pathology in which enemies are everywhere and violence begins at home.

 

Wilder paved the way for a school of American metaphysical theater that, after the ’60s, continued to thrive in Europe but as a driving artistic force became suppressed on these shores by comparatively realistic plays about society and psychology — a movement propelled by the likes of Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller. The difference between the European and the American schools is the difference between seeing human behavior as a function of fate and as a function of morality. In the European school, individual choice is an illusion; in the American school, it’s an imperative.

The question raised by The Skin of Our Teeth is whether or not we have, or ever had, any choice at all. The last two years of American policy have been bringing that question to the fore; the next two years may determine the answer.

THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH | By THORNTON WILDER | At EVIDENCE ROOM, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Westlake | Through July 13

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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