What is the best way to handle a “Beasts of the Southern Wild”-type icy threat, a storm of supernatural proportions and the results of war on the home front? According to St. Olaf’s production of “The Skin of Our Teeth” by Thornton Wilder and directed by Artist in Residence Dona Freeman, the answer is family, wondrous camaraderie with friends, humor, philosophy and empathy.
Beginning at the edge of a modern ice age, the story follows the Antrobus family, who survive disaster after disaster by “the skin of their teeth.” The show includes three “generations” of the metaphorical family “Antrobus” is a derivative of the Greek for “humanity”, each presenting the cyclical nature of mistake and the power of human perseverance. Split into three acts, the show accelerates as humanity grows older and – hopefully – wiser, reveling in this never-ending continuation of calamity and resilience.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” is not, however, simply a stark and gritty narrative of survival; it thrives on streaks of hilarity, over-the-top characters and costumes that stretch the imagination.
The play’s style is reminiscent of Wilder’s “Our Town,” as both are frequently interrupted by a narrating figure that drives the story. For “The Skin of Our Teeth,” this character is Sabina Julia Valen ’14, who sent the audience into laughter with out-of-character sideways commentary, much to the dismay of the “stage manager” Mr. Fitzpatrick Joey LeBrun ’15. Sabina’s relationship to the family changes throughout the progression of generations, but she begins and ends the play with the same costume and demeanor, highlighting the completion of yet another cycle.
During the St. Olaf production, Valen is the only actor to consistently play the same character throughout all three acts. Freeman made the decision to have the members of the Antrobus family change from act to act, a decision that highlights the “everyman” role these characters embody.
Mr. Antrobus, played successively by John-Michael Verrall ’14, Evan Adams-Hanson ’14 and David Gottfried ’15, is an innovator who tries ardently to do right by his family. Mrs. Antrobus, played by Olivia Mansfield ’15, Jessilyn Marth ’14 and Noelle McCabe ’15, is well-meaning and obsessed with her duty as a mother. Both characters elicited sympathy and a bit of frustration from the audience as they tried to pick up the pieces of their lives.
Gladys Antrobus, played by Courtney Stirn ’14, Katie Hindman ’15 and Tara Schaefle ’16, glistens as the girl who is perhaps too perfect for her own good. She draws ire from her overshadowed brother, Henry Antrobus Guillermo Rodriguez ’16, Nathan Aastuen ’17 and Andrew Lindvall ’14. Henry yearns to be appreciated by his father but continually descends into creating havoc. Lindvall’s “Henry” and Schaefle’s “Gladys” are the most starkly distinct of the three pairs and highlight the desolation of self-destruction and the power of hope.
The production’s setting encapsulates the frailty of passing time with the use of hollow frames and a large stone-like clock without any numbers on it that hangs from the ceiling. The final set is especially moving: shattered pieces are left suspended in the air as if time stands still. Cast and crew members inscribed the wood with literary quotes, selections they would choose to save in the case of an apocalypse.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” is thought-provoking and surprisingly upbeat given its consistent calamity. The show takes a while to warm up to, but once the confusion subsides it is a thrilling play that sinks its teeth right into the audience, making the two and a half hours fly by. It is fun, heart-wrenching, visually appealing and philosophically challenging; I have no complaints and only a recommendation for others to see it.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” is scheduled for Feb. 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m. in Kelsey Theater. Tickets can still be ordered on the theater department’s website.