The Skin of Our Teeth is a perennial play of the times. Thornton Wilder’s era-hopping, genre-bending dark comedy debuted at the height of World War II, but the themes it engages—plague, refugees, environmental disaster, and garden-variety human failings—resonate right on down the line to our Covid-tinged moment. It was only a matter of time before an intrepid local company revived it as a comment on the now. Quintessence Theatre Group offers a solid streaming production with several heavy-hitting performers, but Wilder’s self-consciously theatrical opus doesn’t always translate harmoniously to the digital format.
Quintessence first planned to stage Skin in its home space, the Sedgwick Theater, but pandemic delays necessitated the shift to on-demand viewing. In some ways, this turned into a boon. It’s doubtful the company could have secured Rachel Bay Jones—a Tony Award winner for her moving performance as a beleaguered working-class mother in Dear Evan Hansen—for a full run of the play. But she was available to play a mother of a different kind here: Mrs. Maggie Antrobus, matriarch of Wilder’s 5,000-year-old Every-Family, opposite her real-life partner, Benim Foster, as paterfamilias George Antrobus.
The Antrobuses reflect every human being’s capacity for brilliance and weakness. George is an inventor of renown whose credits include the wheel and the alphabet. Yet he’s also a hot-tempered, lascivious blowhard. Maggie, in turn, excels at the domestic arts; she invented the apron. Her single-minded devotion to her children, Henry (Lee Cortopassi) and Gladys (Jacinta Yelland), also leads her to cruelty, ruthlessness, and rage. When a band of migrants lands on the clan’s homestead in fictional, fabled Excelsior, New Jersey, fleeing an extinction-event ice storm, Maggie’s first thought is the safety and comfort of her own brood, others be damned.
A marvel of meta-theatricality
In a way, Wilder parodies the formulaic, feel-good family dramas that pervaded American stages in the 1930s, offering a version of Life with Father on acid. Alex Burns’s production also seems to anticipate the sitcom, complete with a misjudged laugh track appliquéd onto certain scenes—a representation of the missing audience. (The camera occasionally pans to the empty Sedgwick auditorium, where the production was filmed, with cardboard cutouts occupying the seats.) On one level, Henry and Gladys are extreme versions of the cloying neighborhood kids who populated mid-century American suburbia. But did I also mention that Henry, who’s never without his slingshot, was once known as Cain?
The play’s first act, which includes the climate crisis and its ensuing displacement, remains a marvel of meta-theatricality, with falling set pieces, dinosaurs as house pets, and a maid-interlocutor, Sabina (Leigha Kato), who can’t stop breaking the fourth wall. It also captures the strengths and limitations of this work on screen. There are moments when a tight close-up truly serves the material, as when the camera lingers on Jones’s anguished face as she tries to comfort her exasperating son against the backdrop of mounting uncertainty. Yet the ability to juxtapose and jump-cut is used too obviously when Maggie recalls with pain her dead offspring, Abel, as Cortopassi takes on this part in a flashback. Sabina’s asides can also feel a bit too big, though that could have something to do with Kato’s decidedly screwball take on the role.
Acts two and three, which follow the family through great floods and great wars, have always been somewhat shakier ground. Wilder's experiment with form and style sometimes seems like a rehash of material already better covered. Burns sets the right vaudevillian tone for the second act—which takes place on the Atlantic City boardwalk, rendered in candy colors by Brian Sidney Bembridge (scenery) and Ellen Moore (lighting)—although Janis Dardaris’s performance as a Cassandra-like soothsayer is simultaneously tentative and overwrought. The concluding scenes that portray the struggle to establish a new world order after so much devastation can’t help but appear remarkably prescient.
Throughout, Jones and Foster offer superb characterizations, frequently walking right up to the line of exaggeration without crossing it. Foster is less the blustery, larger-than-life George one might expect than a wiry but cunning operator. Jones shows the steel beneath Maggie’s homemaker façade, the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove. And it breaks the heart when, calling for her son as the oceans rise and the ark needs be boarded, she wails his former name: “Cain! Cain!”
The Skin of Our Teeth was both of its time and ahead of it—today, it’s timeless. Although I’d love to see Burns revive his production in a more typical setting once that’s possible, I cannot deny that this presentation meets the moment. It reflects the sadness and the dread so many of us have internalized over the past year and a half. As Sabina opines: “I don’t know why my life’s being interrupted just when everything is going fine.”
What, When, Where
The Skin of Our Teeth. By Thornton Wilder. Directed by Alex Burns. Quintessence Theatre Group. Streaming on demand through August 1, 2021 ($29 rental fee). 215-987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
The Skin of Our Teeth is closed-captioned.