Ideas are wonderful and dangerous things. In Act Three of Thornton Wilder's epic tragicomedy The Skin of Our Teeth, Mr. Antrobus, having survived the Ice Age in Act One and the Great Flood in Act Two, returns to his home after a Great War wanting only to see not his resilient family but rather his books. As maid Sabina explains, if the books have been destroyed "he says it isn't worth starting over again." It's a splash of cold water thrown on Wilder's otherwise fiery tribute to the enduring spirit of the Everyfamily--which survives anything thrown at it down through the centuries. However, it corresponds with the writer's assertion that in the endless cycle of destruction and mayhem that mankind faces generation after generation, there is still comfort in the progress of ideas. Family matters--to some degree. But books matter more. Great ideas matter. And The Skin of Our Teeth is a play crammed with ideas.
No writer since Wilder has connected so well with the zeitgeist of Middle American suburban wholesomeness while at the same time challenging its assumptions. There is a comfort in Wilder's democratic, down-home tone, but any good production of The Skin of Our Teeth--or Our Town, for that matter--will ultimately make an audience a little uncomfortable. Director Stefan Novinski's production achieves that, but it also throws in a few too many ideas of its own, leading to a cluttered first act, a schizophrenic second, but a more restrained and therefore very compelling finale.
There is no need to comment on Wilder's ideal family because he is already commenting on it. The added layer of irony in Sabina's opening monologue as she manipulates a Barbie through one of her Dream Homes is superfluous and actually gets in the way. It shows a distrust of the material--a sense of, Look, we're at the Evidence Room, we know we're cooler than this sappy play--and is therefore not a good kick-off to the evening. Nevertheless, Novinski is still one of L.A.'s most talented up-and-coming directors and soon proves this by ably laying the emotional groundwork among the family members that pays off in subsequent acts--once this show settles down to the business at hand and stops being clever.
Novinski is greatly assisted by some stellar performances. Alicia Adams as the Antrobus matriarch is the true spirit of survival that fuses this family together. Sabina calls her a tigress, and Adams' ferocious portrayal--the finest we've seen from her--lives up to this image. Her speech in Act Two is one of Wilder's greatest. About women, she says, "We're not what books and plays say we are. We're not what advertisements say we are." Its feminist implications are seemingly before their time. But in reality--as Wilder himself knew--few ideas are truly before their time. The world--past, present, and future--exists within a dialogue of voices. They're just not always represented.
The family's fifth wheel, and therefore the character with often the best perspective, is Sabina--maid, temptress, and at turns the voice of reason and hunger--played with remarkable energy and intelligence by Ames Ingham. Leo Marks as violent son Henry (a.k.a. Cain) brings the right human touch to his role, without romanticizing Henry into a noble creature (something Wilder feared). Colleen Kane as sister Gladys does her "little girl" thing here, which we've seen before, but it works fine. Jason Adams' turn as papa Antrobus goes as the play goes. He starts off with an unnecessary layer of character work in Act One--his own stylized, caveman-like take on the part blurring things a bit. But he finds his feet in Act Two, as Antrobus the politician, and emerges triumphant in Act Three with a nuanced, effective portrayal.
Likewise, Novinski's designers get in the way early on--whether their fault or the director's--but what they do, they ultimately do well. And when they keep it simple some gorgeous realizations occur--including an image of white handprints on glass as the frightened horde presses against the Antrobus home and its comforting fire as the ice closes in. The only designer who seems to fall down on his duty is the typically excellent sound man Drew Dalzell. The miking of "offstage" actors to dub the onstage performances in certain scenes is one of those cluttered, clever distractions that may or not be his fault. But worse is that the actors sometimes simply can't be heard--Juan Fernandez as the Fortune Teller, in particular. Wilder's words are too precious to be lost.
There isn't a Critic's Pick on top of this review, but Skin of Our Teeth at Evidence Room is still a play that deserves to be seen--and heard. And at least in the final act of this production, audiences will get that chance. It's worth the wait.