In the program notes for Remy Bumppo’s current production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, producing artistic director Nick Sandys includes a quote from Wilder himself stating that the play “mostly comes alive under conditions of crisis.” When I first encountered this play in college, I was coaxed from ambivalence about the text to a profound respect for its brilliance by an enthusiastic professor with a love for Wilder’s work. It was in that professor’s honor that I sought out this production, but it was in the context of our current conditions of crisis that I really understood it.
Each act of The Skin of Our Teeth depicts the Antrobus family—all-American, both timeless and utterly contemporary—in a time of major disaster: an ice age, a flood, a war. Act Two features a simple and panic-inducing weather alert system: one beep means bad weather, two means a storm, three means a hurricane, and four means the end of the world. These days, listening to the news feels like hearing that fourth beep in the background of every story. Wildfires. Hurricanes. North Korea. Every word out of our president’s mouth. End of the world. End of the world. End of the world.
It’s for this reason, I think, that watching this play now resonated with me more so much more strongly than it did when I read it in college. It’s there in explicit moments—in a speech in which the newly-elected Mr. Antrobus denies a checkered past, actor Kareem Bandealy slips briefly into a terrifying impersonation of Trump, an choice that had much of the audience inhaling sharply through our teeth. But it’s also there in every moment of Wilder’s script.
The world of The Skin of Our Teeth is chaotic, confusing, and constantly shifting. It’s world with dinosaurs, smartphones, soothsayers, guns, Biblical figures, symbolism, realism, and countless other contradictory things. The actors play actors, at times slipping “out of character” to address the audience or the stage manager, most notably Sabina, who offers strong opinions about the content and quality of the play throughout. It’s enough to make one’s head spin, but so too is watching the daily news. When the world outside has gone upside-down and sideways, it makes sense for the theatre to do so, too.
Yet Wilder’s script is not constructed at random. Each element is deliberate, a carefully chosen and deliberate part of a larger whole. This sense of intelligently crafted choices carries through to the acting in this production, as well. Kareem Bandealy, whom I was first introduced to as Othello, brings the same attention to detail to Wilder’s text as he does to Shakespeare’s, creating a Mr. Antrobus who is complex, compelling, and far more sympathetic than the Antrobus I met on the page in college. Similarly, the phenomenally talented Charin Alvarez transforms the Fortune Teller from a sort of bizarre sideshow to the beating heart of Act Two with phantasmagorical physical and vocal choices. And Kelly O’Sullivan is brilliant in what’s probably the show’s most difficult role, Sabina, moving deftly and energetically between the character’s shifting identities and levels of immersion in the storytelling.
Wilder’s text is a work of genius, and Remy Bumppo’s production does it justice. I am struck, again and again as I reflect on the show, how fitting this play is for the world we currently live in, and how, for all that it acknowledges the vicious cycles of destruction human beings create, it has a kind of hopeful message, too.
The world’s been ending before. And we made it through, by the skin of our teeth. We’ll do it again. And maybe, this time, we’ll do better.
Location: Greenhouse Theater Center, Theater 3, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL 60614
Dates: October 4 – November 12, 2017
Times: Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm; Sundays at 2:30pm.
Additional performances Wednesday, October 25 at 7:30pm; Wednesday, November 8 at 7:30pm; and Thursday, November 2 at 2:30pm.
Special events: Saturday, October 21, 1:00 pm – Audio Described Performance with pre-show Touch Tour Touch Tour starts at 1:00 pm. The performance starts at 2:30 pm.
Sunday, November 5, 1:30 pm – Between the Lines Pre-show lecture starts at 1:30 pm. The performance starts at 2:30 pm.
Thursdays, October 19, 26, and November 2, at 7:30 pm – Post-show talkback
Sundays, October 15, 22, 29, and November 5 at 2:30 pm – Post-show talkback
Tickets: $42.50 – $57.50. Industry Tickets: $15 all performances. Student Tickets: $10 all performances except Between the Lines. Group Discounts: Available for parties of 10 or more, call 773.404.7336.
To purchase tickets, visit the Greenhouse Theater Center Box Office, call 773.404.7336 or visit the Remy Bumppo website.
All photos by Nomee Photography.