Rosebud Theatre presents
Under the Skin of Our Teeth
Through June 3
Review by Stephen Hunt
The end of the world is a tough place to start a play.
Yes, it’s about as dramatic as it gets – but geez. We’ve barely even settled into our seats, and everything – everywhere – is falling apart, right in front of us!
Yet there’s playwright Thornton Wilder – the eternal American mid-20th-century optimist – training his glass-is-half-full sensibility, in The Skin of Our Teeth, on the end of days, as the curtain rises on Rosebud’s 2017 season with a truly epic production that’s ambitious, occasionally bewildering, funny – and ultimately quite moving.
How to describe The Skin of Our Teeth? Written in 1942, on the cusp of America’s entry into the Second World War, this Pulitzer Prize-winning wartime comedy is a blend of an American family comedy, a dysfunctional theatre company comedy, and the evolution of man, through some stories you’re likely to recognise if you ever went to Bible school.
Confused yet? It is and it isn’t.
Did I mention that the Antrobus family, whom The Skin of Our Teeth revolves around, have a 30 foot long pet Brontosaurus, and during the first act, George (Declan O’Reilly) and Mrs Antrobus (Jeany Van Meltebeke) celebrate their 5,000th wedding anniversary, all of it taking place amidst anxiety that a melting ice cap may slide all of Montreal into the side of their New Jersey home?
Weird stuff keeps happening to the Antrobus family, like epic rainfall, animals gathering two by two, and a sibling rivalry featuring young Henry (Justin Lanouette), who is fond of sporting a slingshot with a rock in it, to go alongside with the sizable chip that rests atop his shoulder.
All of it unfolds in a (quite fictional), mishap-marred production of The Skin of Our Teeth, being presented by an unnamed theatre company, that keeps trying to deal with the fact that today, everything that can go wrong, will.
The scenery doesn’t arrive onstage in a timely manner. The stage manager (Peter Church), a burly, officious looking gentleman named Mr. Fitzpatrick, keeps walking onstage, armed with a clipboard and headset, to navigate the chaos, right in the middle of many of the stem-winding speeches delivered by Sabina (Heather Pattengale), who is both the family maid – and an actress exasperated by the script she’s been asked to perform.
“I don’t understand a single word of this!” she hollers at one point, and for a moment, it isn’t quite clear if this is the play, or if Pattengale has gone rogue on Rosebud.
Well, don’t panic. Buckle up. Things might be falling apart for the Antrobus family – or at least for the fictional acting company portraying them – but not really any more than your garden variety family in a perpetual state of emotional crisis.
(Jeany Van Meltebeke in The Skin of Our Teeth, at Rosebud Theatre)
Pattengale’s Sabina is willful and funny, a charismatic dynamo. While all around her, the show seems to be falling apart, Sabina keeps the pedal to the metal, in a knockout of a performance by Pattengale, who seems to hit it out of the park in every single role she performs.
She’s matched by O’Reilly’s Antrobus, a family – and at one point, the nation’s – patriarch, who always seems about to become overwhelmed by the moment, before somehow finding the will to carry on, to borrow from the Randy Newman song lyric. O’Reilly is a hugely sympathetic actor who runs the full emotional range, from paternal to scoundrel to fool, across the breadth of time – and somehow makes it all feel plausible.
And if it starts out on an epic, experimental note, as the show unfolds, The Skin of Our Teeth, under Morris Ertman’s exceptionally detailed direction, eventually narrows its focus to the familiar foibles of the Antrobus family – everything from Mr. Antrobus’s wandering eye to dealing with the emotional fallout that betrayal generates, particularly from teenage son Henry, in a twist that contains echoes of Death of a Salesman.
Lanouette has several scenes in the second act that he delivers with the emotional intensity dialled up, and all of a sudden, you realize that underneath all of the end-of-times scenarios, The Skin of Our Teeth delivers one sure-fire truth that resonated across the stage and into the sold out opera house Saturday afternoon: when all else is falling apart around you – including the planet – the only safe haven a person can really count on is family.
Stephen Hunt is the 2017 Rosebud Writer-in-Residence