Every classic play is about both the time it was written and the time it’s being performed, and that may be even truer than usual with “The Skin of Our Teeth.”
Thornton Wilder’s apocalyptic farce deals with climate change, energy shortages, gender equality and other themes that must have seemed new when the play debuted on Broadway in 1942. Its notion that we are in a fight for survival (the first act’s curtain line is literally, “Save the human race!”) probably seemed speculative when we were in the midst of World War II and just coming out of the Depression. Now, though, with oceans rising, the wealth gap increasing and crazed dictators threatening, the concerns of “The Skin of Our Teeth” are more urgent.
Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (John Middleton and Kirby Bennett) form the center of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” trying to keep things together with two kids, a pet mammoth and a dinosaur in a New Jersey home threatened by advancing icebergs and war. The play — actually, the play within a play, since the proceedings are often interrupted for characters to address the audience — checks in with the Antrobuses during three different time frames. They’re raising a family while the world falls apart around them. And if that sounds familiar, then you see why Girl Friday Productions was onto something in staging the play in 2019.
Every decision by director/set designer Joel Sass underscores the tension between what Wilder wrote almost eight decades ago and what it means to us today. An enormous video wall at the back of the stage provides a semi-realistic setting for each of the three acts, but set pieces in front of the wall are almost cartoony to start. Same goes for the style of acting: broadly sitcom-like in Act One, approaching a Marx Brothers-like zaniness in the second act and getting real for the third. Even the wigs, which are very wiggy, make us chuckle at the playful artifice of the first couple acts before the actors wipe off their makeup to face the future in the finale.
There are some weak performers in the 15-person cast, but the leads are superb. Middleton’s salt-of-the-earth quality is ideal for the bemused paterfamilias. Bennett captures the antic quality of Mrs. Antrobus as well as the plain-spoken humanity with which she has kept civilization on track for centuries. The trickiest role may be their son, Henry, but Neal Skoy seamlessly transforms from obstreperous child to budding psycho. (Fun fact: Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj played Henry in 1990 at the Guthrie.)
The way “The Skin of Our Teeth” teases us with nostalgia only to blast us into the bleak near-future feels deeply subversive. But these days, you could argue there’s something even more subversive in Wilder’s hopeful insistence that no matter what baffling questions humans face, we have it within ourselves to come up with answers.