In Topanga Canyon, a Sharp Production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth Sheds a Microscope on the Best and the Worst of the 21st Century
By John Lavitt
Topanga, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/5/19
And my advice to you is not to inquire into why or whither, but to enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.
At Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, a revival production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth is fun and difficult to watch at the same time. While the comedic beats of the play are undeniable, the topical message beneath the broad strokes proves to be unnerving. In the idyllic outdoor setting of Topanga Canyon, the dark underlying message comes across with natural resonance and will continue to reverberate until the end of September. A spirited ensemble led by talented leads breathes new life into a play that was first performed on Broadway over seventy-five years ago in 1942.
Deeply influenced by James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and radical in its political ideology, the play was not well-received by an American public. In the early throes of the Second World War, people were not ready to juggle such complex philosophical propositions, even if they were presented in an amusing fashion. At the same time, Wilder was able to eclipse mixed reactions from critics and find some success. Such an achievement is impressive since the play smashes almost every established theatrical convention of the time.
As underscored by The Thornton Wilder Society, The Skin of Our Teeth “walked off with the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama. Combining farce, burlesque, and satire,” the text is anti-authoritarian with an environmental bent. Indeed, given the imminent threat of climate change, aspects of the story almost feel as if Wilder was staring intensely into a crystal ball. a coming ice age has supplanted global warming, the opening focus on humanity’s negative impact on the natural world is undeniable.
Today, a question to be asked is whether the teeth of Wilder’s epic comedy-drama are still sharp enough to bite into the Trump-dominated morass of the modern age?
Given the swirling cacophony of the textual apocalyptic prognostications, any production of “The Skin of Our Teeth” easily can get swept up by the twister and lost in the whirl. Thus, energetic performances are essential to keep the hurly-burly nature of the narrative grounded enough for the audience to follow. Without such a grounding, “The Skin of Our Teeth” can be a vertiginous affair. At Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, director Ellen Geer is blessed to have found not one, but three such anchors in her excellent choice of lead actors.
As the heart of the production and the main anchor, Willow Geer is absolutely fabulous as Sabina. Beyond being the sexy maid and the secondary love interest of the first man, Sabina is the breaker of the fourth wall. Unhappy with both the production and the play itself, she consistently steps out of character and complains to the audience. In these post-modern moments, the question of reality, both within and without the play, is interrogated. After all, she wonders, if everyone is going to be upset by the ending, what’s the point of continuing?
Although they might be considered the leading players of the story, Mr. Antrobus (Mark Lewis) and Mrs. Antrobus (Melora Marshall) are the co-anchors. On either side of Sabina, they hold the narrative in place. When she steps beyond the story, they always manage to pull her back into the narrative. Representing Adam and Eve, both actors play wonderfully off of each other, grounding the production in their distressing reality. No matter how desperate the external reality in each of the three acts, nothing threatens the centralized delusion of their family life.
As Henry Antrobus and Gladys Antrobus, the two surviving Antrobus children, Gabrielle Beauvais and William Holbrook do their best in limited roles. They manage to give presence through their physicality to parts that are written as mere caricatures. In the final act, Holbrook gets the opportunity to show more dramatic chops as the third act war fleshes out the boy’s part.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle Beauvais does her best to transcend the limitations by connecting with Lewis and Marshall as they perambulate back and forth between approval and disapproval of their children. Still, it’s unfortunate that Wilder did not give the daughter a little more to do than flutter around as eye candy in a variety of costumes. Instead, the main focus of the Antrobus kids is to bring home the point that “children are a thing that only a parent can stand.”
Beyond the family and their sexy maid, the rest of the cast is supporting in nature. This supporting ensemble thrives by staying within the context of their roles. Rather than looking for an opportunity to take center stage and celebrate individual performances, they succeed by actually being a true ensemble. As the Fortune Teller, Earnestine Phillips does chew some scenery in the second act. Once again, Wilder’s play focuses on form and function, leaving any more in-depth characterizations to the wayside of his perpetual inquiry into the universal human condition. Perhaps the most profound insight provided by the Fortune Teller is that the real mystery lies not in figuring out the future, but in understanding our past.
Before the start of the show, an audience member explained why he had come despite having seen the show several times before in a mixed bag of productions. He said with a cautious smile, “The play is so topical because Wilder warns us of the human cost of following the wrong leader. It’s a cautionary tale about authoritarianism, and I believe our country is as close to that point that I ever want it to be.”
Indeed, given the horror of the Trump-inspired mass shootings in recent days, the message of the play resonates in today’s world. Near the end that never ends, Mrs. Antrobus laments all we ever do is begin again as we await the next disaster to come. Accentuated by Melora Marshall’s performance, the sudden intimacy of her expression is a wonderfully quiet moment amid the hurly-burly runaway train of Wilder’s play.
Ultimately, this apocalyptic extravaganza is strangely exhilarating. It’s fascinating to see how the dark genius of a distant past illuminates the shadows of our time at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. In a time of crisis, such a play is essential to see and experience firsthand. Are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again? Although we enjoyed the night, can we still be redeemed?
All Photographs by Ian Flanders