A slice of humanity

"The Skin of Our Teeth" has one eccentric family stand in for the entire human race

Special to The TribuneMarch 27, 2013 

Cambria’s Pewter Plough Playhouse cast has fun with Thornton Wilder’s complex play, “The Skin of Our Teeth.”

A comic allegory about the history of humanity and the innate drive to survive, the play has many layers. On the surface, it’s the story of a family and their foibles, but as it goes deeper, we find that it’s the story of the human family, with a moral center and an ending that is more of a beginning.

The setting of the first act is the home of the Antrobus family in Excelsior, New Jersey (the name Antrobus is derived from the Greek word for human or person). Sabina, the maid, is lamenting the cold weather in August and the sight of a wall of ice descending from the north. Although the furnishings and clothes are modern, the family pets are a dinosaur and a mammoth.

Mr. Antrobus (George) has sent a smoke signal telegram to Mrs. Antrobus (Maggie) announcing that in addition to the alphabet he has been working on, he has invented the wheel. They have a daughter, Gladys, and a son, Henry, formerly named Cain, who killed his brother Abel.

This time-warp mix of biblical, natural, mythical and historical references is comical and curious at the beginning, but as the play goes on for 5,000 years and the main characters remain the same, the metaphor becomes apparent. The family goes through ice age, great flood, depression and wars — as well as a moment of infidelity — but manages to pick up the pieces “by the skin of their teeth.” To add to the play’s complex nature, the actors sometimes stop the flow of the play to step out of character to play the actor talking to the audience.

Although the tone is absurd and comical at first, the dialogue becomes profound at times, and the play, premiering in 1942, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Anita Schwaber directs the cast, creating a tone that blends comic moments with the playwright’s underlying message, smoothly flowing from silly to serious.

Toni Young is likable and funny as the maid Sabina, who stays with the family throughout the eons and takes on the role of narrator at times. (Tallulah Bankhead played her in the original.) Young is broadly comical as she becomes Miss Fairweather, a beauty queen temptress who seduces George Antrobus on the boardwalk in Atlantic City in the face of the impending flood. Fortunately, the flood distracts him just in time and he gathers animals, two by two, for the ark. George is there for a convention as president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans.

Michael Shanley plays George Antrobus as a typical head of household, seemingly strong and in control, although his wife, played with authority by Bev Praver, often has the upper hand in the 5,000-year marriage.

Blake Spiller portrays son Henry as the bad seed, increasingly difficult, and his clueless sister Gladys is played by his real sister, Paige Spiller. Their mother, Colleen Spiller, plays the stage manager in a segment when the actor speaks to the audience. Jerry Praver and Mimi Kimball take on several supportive roles.

Jeff Walters provides the comic highlight of the production. In a costume that is funny by itself, he is a hoot as a boardwalk fortune teller who coaches the seductress as she courts George. With great facial expressions and attitude, he’s even funnier as he addresses the audience.

Art Van Rhyn built and painted the sets, which go from the Antrobus house to Atlantic City and back again.

This is a rich play, a surreal fantasy enriched by gems of meaningful dialogue. In a tribute to the human spirit, the Antrobus family represents generations who continue to live through world crises, natural and of their own making. As Sabina points out at the end of the play, it’s not over. It’s up to us to continue the narrative.

IF YOU GO

"The Skin of Our Teeth"
7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through April 28
Pewter Plough Playhouse, 824 Main St., Cambria
$15 to $20
927-3877 or www.pewterploughplayhouse.org

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