Thornton Wilder’s play, The Skin of Our Teeth, could have been written yesterday. With the exception of Mrs. Antrobus’s (Linda Alper) dated do and the existence of a family maid, Sabina (Sara Hennessy), the Antrobus pad in Excelsior, New Jersey, sometime around 1940, just as easily could be current day Lake Oswego. Only what’s that block of ice outside the Antrobus’s picture window? And why does it seem to be moving closer? What about the wooly mammoth running through the living room? And, by the way, where is Mr. Antrobus (Don Alder) with the food?
The production, playing at Artists Repertory Theatre through June 12, begs the audience to suspend disbelief as Artists Rep Artistic Director Damaso Rodriguez and his marvelous cast and crew lead us through several iconic periods in civilization.
There are more than a few madcap moments in this farce, which premiered in 1942 and earned its creator a second Pulitzer Prize for drama. The audience follows the Antrobus parents, their bratty kids Gladys (Val Landrum) and Henry (Shawn Lee), and Sabina through the Great Depression, the aforementioned Ice Age, a political campaign, and many other adventures that not only surprise and delight, but also give us pause to consider where we have been and where we are going.
The Skin of Our Teeth is a big, noisy production of beginnings and abrupt endings and more beginnings. Wilder’s humor has worn well over the decades. And his messages, though spoken to an earlier age, are frighteningly fresh in light of current events. (I look at this play more as a fable than a comedy.) Wilder’s genius is in seeing the big scary picture for humankind, and in bringing that home through humor and story.
There are moments of pure hilarity. The scene in Act II featuring Lauren Modica as the Fortune Teller, is worth the price of admission. Modica walks onto the stage, hips rolling, eyebrows wiggling up and down, bracelets jangling, and the audience is in her spell. Muttering what sounds like a string of muted curses and dire predictions, she completely owns the stage.
As if it weren’t enough to end its season on this high note, Artist Rep announced May 25 that it has been accepted as the 72nd member of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), joining three other Northwest theatres–Portland Center Stage, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), also Seattle. Artistic Director Damaso Rodriguez calls this “a major accomplishment for Artists Rep…[that] represents our commitment to compensating artists at the level of our peers nationally.” This honor signifies what we already know–that Portland’s commitment to the arts is deeply rooted and serious. And for the theatre it is well-deserved.