Rosebud Theatre presents
The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder
March 31 through June 3
(Photo: Cast of The Skin of Our Teeth)
Actor Declan O’Reilly didn’t need a hard sell to be convinced to return to perform at Rosebud a second time.
In the summer of 2016, he was part of the cast of Tent Meeting, his first time performing at Rosebud since relocating from Toronto to Calgary several years earlier, where he’s become a familiar figure on the city’s stages, in shows such as Theatre Calgary’s A Christmas Carol and most recently in The Audience.
“The place has a charm,” O’Reilly says. “It has a feeling about it that is really quite wonderful, so when Morris asked if I’d be interested in coming back to do another show, I said absolutely – without even really asking what the show might be!”
That’s when Ertman informed him that the play he had in mind was Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy The Skin of Our Teeth, which opens in Rosebud March 31.
It’s a play-within-a-play, that touches on a host of contemporary-seeming topics, including climate change, refugees, the sanctity of the family, and the end of the world.
The catch? It had its world premiere in 1942.
Holy horse and buggy!
“When he approached me,” O’Reilly says, “and said we’re going to do The Skin of Our Teeth, I said, you’ve got to be kidding me! That’s a heck of a show – and a bit of a chestnut – and Morris said no, I think you need to give it another read.
“So I sat down and read the script,” he says, “and I was so shocked at how poignant and how timely that script is after – you know – three-quarters of a century, how this piece of theatre that’s quite wacky and quite allegorical, is still relevant to today.”
O’Reilly said yes to playing Mr Antrobus, the family patriarch in a story that unfolds over thousands of years, and features a cast of characters that include refugees such as Homer, Moses and Aristotle, a house pet that’s a 30-foot long brontosaurus puppet, and an Ice Age.
For director Morris Ertman, tackling Wilder’s unique blend of backstage comedy, family drama, and ultimately, humanistic storytelling is both thrilling – and a bit terrifying.
“Thornton Wilder,” Ertman says, “singlehandedly informed everything I believe about the theatre.”
While he successfully directed a production of Our Town in 2013, Ertman was always a little hesitant to take on the task of presenting The Skin of Our Teeth, which – in addition to all those big, juicy themes – is very much about the lunacy of life in the theatre, creating a show that’s a unique blend of big ideas and big comedy.
“I was very afraid of this show,” he says, “but the person who kept faith in this show was my wife, Joanne, because I lit a production of it in university years and years ago and Joanne still remembers laughing herself crazy through that play and finding it so entertaining.”
“The audience,” he adds, “ is going to go on just an incredibly wonderful ride.”
That’s partly because no matter what misfortune – or misbehaviour – befalls his characters, Wilder never succumbs to cynicism in his storytelling.
His work has survived nearly a century because he does American dreams better than almost any other American playwright, Ertman says.
“He demonstrates incredible faith in human beings,” Ertman says, “and I think he’s in love with humanity. He’s just in love with people – and even the people (in the play) that are seemingly despicable…there’s room for all in Thornton Wilder’s world.”
Part of that is Wilder’s text, and part of it is Rosebud’s roster of impressive acting talent, including Heather Pattengale, who plays Sabina, along with relative (Rosebud) newcomers, such as O’Reilly.
“I hold them (actors) up as high priests of the heart,” Ertman says, “because they take us on that journey – and they do it transparently in the theatre in ways that aren’t edited together (like film actors).
“Everything (they do) – from the training, on to the work they do on the stage – has everything to do with open-heartedness.”
Of course, open-heartedness also brings with it a degree of vulnerability and emotional risk – requiring an enormous degree of faith all its own.
“Theatre is a place that requires extraordinary faith,” Ertman says, “which has nothing to do with religion …and if you can bring that to the stage (each night) – faith in acting, faith in your scene partner, faith in your audience – your openness to one another – yes, (and faith) to your writer…well, that’s what you long for in the theatre.”
For O’Reilly, that faith extends to the connection an actor makes each evening with the audience – which is why he’s anxious to head back to the stage at Rosebud.
“The audiences down in Rosebud are fantastic,” O’Reilly says. “They’re very astute and very committed and highly loyal, so I’m hoping there’s great success with this one (too), because I think it’s a good story and there’s potential to have a really good theatre afternoon or night out.”
Stephen Hunt is the 2017 Rosebud Writer-in-Residence. Read it at thehalfstep.live