Place: the Atlantic City Boardwalk in Excelsior, New Jersey. Time: Immemorial.
The Skin of Our Teeth, the Pulitzer Prize-winning tribute to the indestructibility of the human race by Thornton Wilder, opens on the beautiful outdoor stage at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum on Saturday, July 13, where performances continue through Sept. 29.
A satirical testimonial to the dogged determination of human beings to hang in there against all odds, Wilder masterfully looks ahead to the future of humanity, while at the same time compounding its entire history. A seemingly average American family—Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (Mark Lewis and Melora Marshall), their son and daughter (William Holbrook and Gabrielle Beauvais), and the maid, Sabina (Willow Geer)—must learn to navigate the Ice Age, Biblical times, the invention of the wheel, ancient Greece, the Great War, even a beauty pageant in Atlantic City.
Their experiences represent the range of human potential for genius, love, envy, betrayal, destruction and, most importantly, survival. As they continue to live and rebuild in the face of adversity, they are proof, as Mr. Antrobus says, that “living is struggle.”
“This play is about us, today,” notes Artistic Director Ellen Geer. “The Antrobuses are refugees of the Ice Age (climate change), of Noah’s Flood (record-breaking, weather-related calamities and fires) and of war (which never seems to cease). Theatricum is mounting it for the third time,” says Geer, “so I guess we are at another time of crisis, and plan to survive and land on our feet, just like the Antrobus family.”
Wilder said of his play, “It is most potent in times of crisis.” Just as he did several years earlier with Our Town, Wilder again stretched the bounds of theatrical convention.
Written in 1942, largely in response to U.S. involvement in WWII, Wilder’s play was meant partly to assuage our fears of worldwide destruction brought on by war. It opened on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre and was an immediate smash hit, winning the 1943 Pulitzer Prize (Wilder’s third, after The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town). Directed by Elia Kazan, it starred Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, Tallulah Bankhead, and Montgomery Clift. Kazan wrote in his autobiography, A Life, “Many of the audience were mystified…but [that] reaction became part of the talk that made the play immediately famous.”
Thornton Wilder liked to tell the story about how cab drivers said they prospered during the original Broadway run of The Skin of Our Teeth because of all the baffled theatergoers fleeing at intermission. Between its nebulous chronology, simultaneous activity in multiple places, and mix of narration, dialogue, and asides, The Skin of Our Teeth has always been a challenge.
About Thornton Wilder—Novelist and playwright was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 17, 1897. His father, Amos, was an editor and journalist and his mother, Isabella, was a poet. The family lived in Madison until 1906 when they moved to Hong Kong when Wilder’s father was appointed American consul general. Wilder attended Oberlin College and Yale University and received his master’s degree from Princeton in 1926.
During the 1920s, to support himself, Wilder taught French and English at various schools and wrote scripts for silent films. He wrote his first novel, The Cabela, in 1926. His second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), won the Pulitzer Prize. His play, Our Town (1938), a look at small-town American life, brought Wilder the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and the The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The Matchmaker (1954), one of Wilder’s more successful works, evolved into the musical comedy, Hello, Dolly.
Other plays include Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays (1928); The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Act (1931); Merchant of Yonkers (1939); Childhood (1960); and Infancy (1960). His other novels include Woman of Andros (1930); Heaven’s My Destination (1935); The Ides of March (1948); The Eighth Day (1967), for which Wilder was awarded the 1968 National Book Award; Theophilus North (1973); and The Alcestiad, or A Life In The Sun (1977).
The Skin of Our Teeth will perform in repertory on Theatricum’s main stage alongside four other productions: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Orson Welles’ Moby Dick–Rehearsed, adapted from the novel by Herman Melville; and a free adaptation, by Ellen Geer, of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. All five productions continue through Sept. 29.
A sixth production is set to open on the smaller stage in the theater’s intimate S. Mark Taper Pavilion on Aug. 17: The Gin Game by D.L. Coburn—another Pulitzer Prize winner—will star long-time Theatricum company members and real life husband-and-wife team Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James in a co-production with the Sierra Madre Playhouse.
Tickets range from $10 – $42; children 4 and under are free. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga, midway between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley. For a complete schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, call (310) 455-3723; www.theatricum.com. Visit Theatricum on facebook: facebook.com/theatricum; on twitter: @theatricum; and instagram: @theatricum_botanicum.