Getting By With More Than THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH

by Marshall Garrett

Mammoth (Mark Williams and Daniel Bailin), Gladys (Erin Partin), Mrs. Antrobus (Kathleen Pirkl Tague), Henry (Michael Gotch), and Joann Browning (Dinosaur) in a scene from Resident Ensemble Players' THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH. (Photo credit: Nadine Howatt)

Going to the REP has it’s own special joy, one unseen in most parts of this country: a chance to see the same nine actors exploring a variety of texts and characters, often with remarkable results. Having now seen the entire 2011-2012 season, it is appropriate for me to give the theatre a great ‘Bravo’ for its complete body of work this season. I sincerely hope that REP will continue producing for many years to come.

This production of Thorton Wilder’s THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH features six members of the REP, along with a horde of ensemble members.  Lacking a note in the program or biographies for the ensemble, I would love to hear from the REP (please leave a comment) about who these ensemble members were: students? Community members? The production, as always, is beautifully realized, and the company is at its best in the hands of its leader, Artistic Director Sanford Robbins. Robbins knows his space well for the limited residency the REP has had, and his actors even better.

For those who think of Wilder as the stuffy old playwright who created OUR TOWN, first, go re-read (or go see) OUR TOWN, and remind yourself of its brilliance, and second, let go of any preconceived notions of the playwright when coming to see SKIN. The play follows the Antrobus family (a lightly veiled Adam and Eve) with their two children, Henry, formerly Cain, and their daughter, Gladys. The first act is visually a mid Century family home, with the Ice Age fast approaching on the outside. The second brings us to the Atlantic City Boardwalk in the Present, when Mr. Antrobus has been elected President of Humanity, and the great Flood approaches. The third takes place in the future, after a great war between Antrobus and his son. All the while, the Antrobus’ maid, Sabina, comments on the action, drives a wedge between family members, and breaks the flow of the action entirely, just when you are starting to get into the story of the play – with good reason.

The REP production handles the script excellently – local references and true actors’ names in the breaks in the action are handled without any of the usual awkwardness such moments seem to be made for. The actors are comfortable in their own skin, an attribute all too often neglected. I do believe, however, that in these moments a certain urgency is lost. Although these are decidedly Brechtian moments, breaking up the action while acknowledging the theatre and the fact that it is, in fact, an actor playing the role, the breaks are played with minimal stakes, a brief monologue in the third act by Michael Gotch excepted. If anything, these scripted breaks should become more important than the actions of the play. The actors cannot let the play continue, whether for a sensitivity to an audience member or personal issue in the script, the needs of the actor must overcome the needs of the play for these moments to ring true. Even when Gotch and Stephen Pelinski are about to come to blows, these moments are not realized to their fullest potential.

THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH - Takeshi Kata's extraordinary Act II Set Design. (Photo credit: Paul Cerro)

Kathleen Pirki Tague gives her strongest performance of the year as Mrs. Antrobus. When all the world is crashing around her, she still has the strength to look for her son and has a serenity and strength for her daughter that is quite touching. Pelinski as Mr. Androbus and Gotch as Henry hold to their own incredibly high bars of performance throughout, and should the REP be looking for a tenth member in the near future, they should look no further than Erin Partin, the guest artist playing Gladys. Elizabeth Heflin, always a favorite of mine, doesn’t quite connect for me this time around. Sabina is a little too grounded, and when she steps out of the play as herself, I don’t quite believe she’s ever stepped out of the persona.

The design of the production is extraordinary. Takeshi Kata’s set, particularly the ruins of the house in Act Three, is a pleasure to behold. The boardwalk may be a bit overdesigned and asensory overload, but everything is deliberate. Matt Richard’s lighting design is the most subtle I’ve seen since LITTLE FOXES. Even when shifting abruptly to ‘work light’ there are elements of change in these looks over the course of the play.

Again, I want to thank the REP for their fantastic work over the past year, and I am very excited for the announcement of next season.

by Thorton Wilder
Directed by Sanford Robbins
Through May 5, 2012
Resident Ensemble Players
Thompson Theatre, Roselle Center for the Arts
10 Orchard Rd
Newark, DE, 19716
(302) 831-2204

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