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Mon September 16, 2002
The Skin of Our Teeth
The Trinity Repertory Company revives Thornton Wilder's 1942 comedy about mankind's knack for survival.
By Bill Marx
Providence, RI –
The Trinity Repertory Company's press material insists that its production of "The Skin of Our Teeth" has added significance because of 9/11. It is true that the play's time-tripping plot is about survival, with the Antrobus family holding together through the ice age, the flood, and war. "The Skin of Our Teeth" is about sacrifice, and during WWII the play's combination of playful surrealism and preachiness struck a chord. When it comes to 9/11, the President tells us to take the horror to heart, but for the good of the country shop till you drop. Where is the call for sacrifice?
The Trinity Repertory Company production is energetic, but today "The Skin Of Our Teeth" comes off as an arch and strained morality play. After five decades of unconventional humor, Thornton Wilder's jokes and pratfalls are ancient wheezes. You know a playwright is desperate when sayings from Aristotle and Spinoza are trotted out to kick mankind out of its rut. The Anrobus family is supposed to be every family, which means stereotypical. The inventor father has a wondering eye, the mother preaches family values, the son is an Oedipal mess, and the daughter is blank. The wild card character is Sabina, a scrappy woman whose sexuality must be kept under control if mankind is to survive. Wilder is nothing if not puritanical. The play's experimentalism baffled audiences when it first opened -- the actors step out of character and talk to the audience about the difficulties of performing in the show. But the avant-garde antics are just a cover for conventionality.
As Sabina, Rachael Warren has mild fun with the role. Credit should go to director Amanda Dehnert and set designer David Jenkins, who struggle to juice up the evening's dried-out comedy. Actors on stilts play dinosaurs, weird images in video and slides provide some laughs, a shriner's meeting includes a quartet singing "Goody Goody." This scrambling for chuckles holds for about two thirds of the play, but when Wilder takes the Anrobus family to war, the playwright becomes earnest to a fault, with the characters speechifying about the human need to find meaning in life despite adversity. It is interesting that religion is barely mentioned.
The Trinity cast members try to pump some life into the Antrobus family, but they are stick figures. Ironically, these puppets are supposed to be emblems of mankind's true grit. Trinity Rep applies plenty of theatrical elbow grease to "The Skin of Our Teeth," but the play is pretty well mummified.
Trinity Repertory Company's production of "The Skin of Our Teeth" runs through October 13, 2002 at the Chase Theater in Providence, RI. For tickets, call (401) 351-4242.