THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH – Berkshire Theatre Group
Whether by directorial design or acting chops, women rule Berkshire Theatre Groups’ vital, textually-focused production of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth”. The 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winning “comedy”, first produced as Americans were crawling out of the Depression and marching headlong to another World War, a strange, often bewildering tale in three parts, is about the Antrobus family of New Jersey who survive Ice Age, Great Flood and War. This allegory for the how the history of mankind repeats itself is replete with prescient flashes from Wilder that resonate today - climate change, social anomie, political cultural upheaval. How did the Antrobuses survive? How will we?
In director David Auburn’s take, the key interlocutors to Wilder’s epic are the Antrobus’ maid, Sabina, played by an incredibly versatile Ariana Venturi, and Mrs. Antrobus, Maggie, played by the inimitable, Tony-winning Harriet Harris. In part one, the not-that-bright Sabina, introduced by a stage manager (this is really a play within a play), hilariously frets on one hand about the doom of approaching glaciers and on the other if Mr. Anrtrobus will get home from work on time. Her motto is as uncomplicated as “enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate”. Venturi navigates it all as deftly as she does in part two when her character appears as a blond floozy Miss Atlantic City, who tempts Mr. Antrobus on a Boardwalk convention. (He’s become chairman of the Order of Mammals and an exemplar of good citizenship.) By the third part, after Maggie and Sabina emerge from a war bunker, a wiser, world-weary Sabina (“you have the right to grab what you can find”) voices existential reason - “That's all we do, always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again." Venturi completes the arc, with amazing virtuosity and range.
It’s no surprise that Harriet Harris grabs the power of Maggie Antrobus and doesn’t let it go. A past master of timing and physical expression, Harris renders a perfectly calibrated performance, especially bringing dramatic focus to Maggie’s monologue in the second act. Like a dutiful spouse, Maggie takes the convention microphone to amplify her husband’s civic virtue. In the most arresting - and prescient -scene in this production, Maggie summons, quietly but forcefully, MANkind’s history of injustice to her gender. Maggie puts a message "with all the things a woman knows" in a bottle she hurls into the ocean - "if it finds its destination a new time will come.” (How did Wilder know?) In the third part, comedy completely gives way to drama; the emotional ballast of Harris’ Maggie makes it the strongest of the three acts.
Scenic design, like Auburn’s direction, is uncluttered; discrete period props (e.g. Colonial revival andirons, a 1950’s sunburst wall clock) suggest the all-American 20thC household. Lighting design skews dark, appropriately. Surprisingly relevant musical selections pepper the show, like Chic's 1970s disco hit, "Good Times" (in the Atlantic City party scene before the flood hits). The show ends with the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime”, with the refrain “same as it ever was”. Or, as Sabina, one of the two heroines in this “Skin”, says “We have to go on for ages and ages.” How true - consider the alternative.