Confusion Abounds By THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH

by Walter Bender

Dramateurs at the Barn in Jeffersonville opened last Friday with a seldom-seen Thornton Wilder comedy, THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH. This unusual comedy follows the Antrobus family through 3 eras in “history,” the Ice Age (combined with a normal household in New Jersey,) a more modern Atlantic City Boardwalk, and a supposed future. If you’re confused by this, stand by…it gets worse.

The cast of THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, playing at the Barn Playhouse in Jeffersonville through June 25.

When the show opens, we are met by a news broadcast of the approaching Ice Age, then cut to the Excelsior, NJ home of the Antrobus family…George (John Henken), Maggie (Lori-Nan Engler), and their children Henry (Jerry McGrier) and Gladys (Leah Holstein.) They are joined by their maid, Lily Sabina (Andrea Frassoni) who is worried about Mr. Antrobus’ tardiness in coming home from the office, where he has invented such things as the alphabet, multiplication tables, the lever and most recently, the wheel. We meet each of the main characters, and with a combination of classical and Biblical references, we become aware of the approach of the ice, and the refugees who come with Mr. Antrobus for food, drink, and fire. The second act finds the Antrobus family in Atlantic City, where Mr. Antrobus is being sworn in as the president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans. Lily Sabina also is there, as a scheming beauty queen who tries to get George to leave Maggie. Her plans are thwarted by a great flood, and George must get all of the animals (a pair of each…sound familiar) onto a large boat at the end of the pier. The third act finds us back in the Antrobus’ home, which has been devastated by a great war. George has been fighting on one side, and his son Henry (who we discover earlier actually is Cain) fighting on the other. A chorus (Kevin Fennell, Nina Grecco, Jim Hopper, Mia Mbuy, Robert Pellechio, and Katie Romano) fill out the cast as various people the Antrobus’ interact with.

The above synopsis does little justice to the story…it’s absurdist in nature, with many “breaks” where the actors drop their character to speak directly to the audience, explaining things or changing the script on the fly. In Act 3, it is revealed that some of the “regular” cast members have food poisoning and the Stage Manager has enlisted some non-actors to fill in, even conducting a mini-rehearsal in the midst of the performance. While this makes the play somewhat difficult to follow at times, it gives the audience plenty of opportunities for laughs.

Andrea Frassoni as Lily Sabina does a wonderful job…her character’s squeaky voice and whiny nature are a direct contrast to when she “drops character” and speaks with a beautiful mezzo voice and great insight into the inner meaning of the play. John Henken (George) does well with a difficult character, although some of his mood swings were difficult to understand. Lori-Nan Engler (Maggie) tries to keep the family together, and becomes a stronger feminist presence as time goes on. The Antrobus children were consistently submissive to the wishes of their parents, even when Henry (Mr. McGrier) comes to kill his father in the final act. The chorus fills in very nicely, never overshadowing the action in front of them and playing multiple parts without any overlap of characters.

The direction of this show was difficult to follow at times. Aaron Gould (Director) picked a very tough show to try to bring to the audience. The pace of the show was excellent…I was surprised at the passage of time in each act…but there were many questions unanswered that I think could have been better done, for instance Henry/Cain’s change of character from devoted son to enemy of his father. And, in the director’s notes he states that the play is about books, yet the books that are very evident on the set are not referenced until late in Act 3.

THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH is a very unusual play. Thornton Wilder received a Pulitzer in 1942 for this piece, and critics during its initial Broadway run said it would revitalize the American theater. I’m not sure it has done that, but it’s worth a trip to Jeffersonville to see this most unique production.

by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Aaron Gould
June 17-25, 2011
The Dramateurs, Inc.
at The Barn Playhouse
1600 Christopher St
Jeffersonville, PA  19403

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