A Play Whose Time has Come Around Again
“The sun rose this morning at 6:32 a.m.,” the newscaster excitedly informs us at the beginning of the play. It seems lots of people thought it might not. Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth won the Pulitzer Prize at the height of World War II for capturing the zeitgeist of a time when people knew civilizations would be destroyed, possibly forever, but were determined to struggle on. Remy Bumppo, under the direction of Krissy Vanderwarker, is reviving it now for the troubles of today, in fulfillment of its portrayal of crises as cyclical. Wilder stated his intent was to create a world onstage that would always be current, and with just a few minor changes to his language (changing the A&P to Trader Joe’s, and so forth), Vanderwarker has crafted a production that tells us that humanity as a collective will survive, but that doesn’t mean we’ll all be okay.
Remy Bumppo takes us to the Ice Age…Sort Of
The Antrobus family lives in a world that is half ice age and half suburban New Jersey. The maid, Sabina (Kelly O’Sullivan) doesn’t like this, or how fourth-wall breaking the play is in general. In fact, there are several lines she refuses to even say. George Antrobus (Kareem Bandealy) is a great inventor, while his wife, Maggie (Linda Gillum), puts family above everything and is Sabina’s rival for George’s attention. Their children, Gladys (Leea Ayers) and Henry (Matt Farabee), are going through a stormy adolescence, with Gladys exploring her sexuality and Henry literally being Cain (there used to be another son nobody talks about). Life is precarious now that there’s a glacier hurtling toward them and thousands of refugees are milling about while the Antrobus family has no food and no firewood, and what they do have, they are divided about sharing.
It turns out that this sort of catastrophe is normal for the family—they’ve been around for over five thousand years. In Act II we see them in Atlantic City just in time for the biblical flood. It’s their ideals that keep them motivated; the life of the mind for George and her family for Maggie. Neither of them are particularly nice people, but they know how to survive. As George, Kareem Bandealy is a charismatic tyrant, the perfect archetype of a dreamer who puts ideals before (other people’s) feelings. Maggie is described as a tigress and that’s true of Gillum’s interpretation, the upholder of conservative morality who can overlook murder but not vulgarity. As Sabina, Kelly O’Sullivan is sardonic, self-centered, and finds that she takes to war more easily than peace. Farabee’s Henry, a brutish, miserable creature, thinks this to be true of himself, as well, while Gladys (played by understudy Kayla Raelle Holder the night I attended) is the family member who slowly grows a heart.
Wilder’s Foresight Uncanny
With the characters and setting quite a bit larger than reality, the play contains a lot of humor. Some of it is very dark, while other bits are amusingly self-referential or satirical. A pair of doomed prehistoric animals, designed by Jessica Mondres, are pathetically cute. Despite the play’s long running time, it is always energetic, and Vanderwarker finds different paces for it to suit each scene. Late in Act III, during a family confrontation, the focus suddenly zooms in until we are, just briefly, observing recognizable human beings on opposite sides of a terrible void. Wilder’s play is optimistic, but not exactly comforting. Actually, his depiction of George Antrobus’s political career taking off at the Miss America beauty pageant in Atlantic City immediately before the whole world drowns is downright eerie. The production is large for the Greenhouse space, with thirteen actors appearing at various times on Yeaji Kim’s adaptable set. This makes for a messy, bustling world, in which we get a feeling for the magnitude of the events, but experience them from the perspective of the people caught up in them. It’s an alarming place to be.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: an excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Now through November 12
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and October 25 at 7:30 pm
Sundays and November 2nd at 2:30 pm
Running time is two and a half hours with two intermissions.
The Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago
Call 773-404-7336 or visit the Remy Bumppo website.
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis is a freelance writer and dramaturge. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of dramatic literature and interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham. His professional work includes developing new performance pieces such as The Blues Ain’t a Color. Since moving to Chicago in 2014 he has reviewed theatre, written articles, and conducted interviews for a number of websites.