"The Skin of Our Teeth" is about as unusual as it gets, and the production at Off The Wall Theatre has just about everything that I don’t like in a theatrical production.
The acting is spotty, the sets are plain and sketchy, the story is totally out of touch with any kind of reality – featuring a couple celebrating their 5,000th wedding anniversary – the lighting is often well behind the cues and the sound is so overwhelming that it almost hurt my ears.
The curious thing is that I loved all of it and found myself riveted at the end when this wild conglomeration of a story stumbled to an end after almost 150 minutes – with two intermissions – of perplexing theater.
I have never particularly liked this play, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1942 for Thornton Wilder. But this production somehow managed to grab me and hold on until it came to an end. Even though I knew how it ended, I still found myself wondering what would happen.
The play centers on the Antrobus family: George and Maggie and their two children, Henry and Gladys.
George (Jeremy C. Welter) is a scientist, and a mild lecher, who invented the alphabet, the multiplication tables, the lever and the wheel among other things. Henry’s real name is Cain, but his father doesn’t like him because the boy killed his brother whose name was, you guessed it, Abel. Henry (Patrick McCann) has a slingshot that he uses to continually shoot rocks at other people.
Gladys (Calynn Klohn) is a young girl who can’t keep her skirt down in spite of the repeated demands of her mother. Gladys lusts after her father’s approval. Meanwhile, Maggie (Carole Herbstreit-Kalinyen) spends her entire life trying to protect her family.
She and George are celebrating being married five millennia in their home in the imagined city of Excelsior, N.J. The story opens in the midst of an ice age, and every time the front door opens, we are treated to the blistering sound of a ferocious storm.
Through the door and the rest of the play, we meet a dinosaur, a mammoth, a singing telegram boy, a doctor, a judge, three muses, a gypsy, a lifeguard, a fortune teller and a Cornnoodle, whatever that might be.
We also are dragged through an ice age, a hurricane during which the family saves animals – by the pair – and a seven-year war, then are off to the playground of Atlantic City and back to a desolate home, virtually destroyed.
Seeming to reign over all of this is Sabina (Kathiamarice Lopez), a sultry siren with – as the saying goes – "legs for miles." And those legs play a crucial role as she toils through the roles of occasional narrator, family servant, guidance counselor, tattler, seductress and the only permanent pessimistic schemer in the entire cast.
The play itself is interrupted by occasional narratives direct to the audience. These are delivered by the actors playing themselves and using their real names. I’ve always thought it a contrived distraction from the already confusing and convoluted themes of the play.
Clearly this is not a reality play, but rather, an allegory on Wilder’s peculiar view of life. And it is a view full of commitment to the idea that life doesn’t really get much better or worse over the course of the centuries. What once was is what is now and what will be in the future, Wilder seems to say.
Dale Gutzman, the company's artistic director, always manages to adapt classic plays to fit his tiny space and his big vision of what theater should be. And, as always, he is supported by a cast that varies from the experienced and able to the few who act as if this is the first night they have seen the script.
The four actors playing the family, led by the always-interesting Weller, set a high bar. Lopez is an actor full of stage presence who draws attention because of her looks and keeps it because of her skills.
A word must be said for McCann, who has been one of Gutzman’s most stalwart performers. He has been accepted for the acting program at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England for the 2016-17 school year. It is one of the most respected programs in the world, accepting only 12 students per year.
The cost of the program is almost $30,000 per year and there is a GoFundMe underway to help McCann pay for it.
"The Skin of Our Teeth" runs through July 3 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
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Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.