“The Skin of Our Teeth” is absurdly fantastic

Kristi Ruff

This past weekend, Lawrence University put on the well-known Thornton Wilder play “The Skin of Our Teeth.” Those who saw it may say that it was crazy, incomprehensible or downright strange. They would be absolutely right.
However convoluted the play may be, though, the message was stunningly well-presented, and Lawrence’s performance of the play was fantastic. So if you missed the show, you may be disappointed to discover that you did indeed miss out on some rather absurd brilliance.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” tells the tale of the Antrobus family: George, Maggie and their two children, Henry and Gladys. This family, and the story that follows it, however, is anything but normal.
The story also includes the Antrobus maid, Sabina, played by Katie Cravens. This maid constantly tries – and, in some cases, succeeds – to steal Mr. Antrobus’ affection away from his wife.
Mr. Antrobus, played by Eric Ohlrogge, is an inventor. He has created the wheel, the lever and the alphabet. His wife is a headstrong mother who sees caring for children as the most important thing she could do with her life.
The children are seemingly normal: Erika Thiede played the rambunctious little girl who cannot seem to remember to keep her dress down, and Jeff Rudisill played the boy, Henry, who loves his slingshot. We find out later in the play, however, that Henry’s character is an allusion to Cain, the murderous Biblical brother, who in this tale “accidentally” killed his brother with his slingshot.
Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus are allusions to Adam and Eve, and Gladys is the “perfect” third child who gets all of the attention after the death of the favorite son Abel. Lilly Sabina, the maid, is really an amalgam of references, although the most striking is that her first name seems to refer to Lilith, the character in the Kabbalah associated with the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
The play is extremely anachronistic and is broken up into three acts that play with this theme. The first takes place in the Antrobus home in New Jersey. Their home, however, is also somehow merged with the prehistoric ice age, and characters such as dinosaurs, mammoths, Moses and the Greek Muses are not at all unusual.
Time-ignorant characters such as these become rather commonplace as the story progresses through a carnival, at which Mr. Antrobus has been made president, told the whole order of mammals to “enjoy themselves” and left Mrs. Antrobus for Sabina, and a war, during which Mr. Antrobus and Henry fight each other on opposite sides with guns and Civil War garb and Mrs. Antrobus hides out in a cellar with Gladys, who has grown into a lovely young hippie with a baby. Crazy and confusing? Yes, indeed.
The players were brilliant, however, and, given such difficult material to interpret, they pulled it off with grace and an eccentric form of elegance. Nora Taylor did a fantastic job, becoming an overpowering force of nature in her role as the Antrobus matriarch.
The children’s roles were also wonderful: Thiede and Rudisill portrayed childlike innocence with ingenuity, which made the development of their characters throughout the play that much more enjoyable to observe. Cravens also did a fantastic job as the temptress, leaving all – if any – insecurities about the role off stage and wowing the crowd.
The whole play seems to be pointing out the fact that human history repeats itself, changing subtly due to the varying capacity for human good versus capacity for human destruction. After all of the disasters in the play, a question is posed: “Is there any accomplishment or attribute of the human race of enough value that its civilization should be rebuilt?” This is a question still entirely relevant to today’s society.
If you went to the play, you know that Sabina hands off the role and responsibility of “going on” and answering that question to the audience. So, do not dismiss the insanities of the play; rather, take the message to heart, and choose with care how you will go out and change our world for the better.