Virtually every summer the Williamstown Theater Festival mounts one production of a size and scope that few other theaters could replicate. This summer, it’s Thornton Wilder’s fantastic 1942 comedy “The Skin of Our Teeth.” The production boasts a cast of 44, plus four puppeteers and two massive sets. Like last summer’s strikingly similar extravaganza, Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real,” “Skin of Our Teeth” reveals its author in pretentious mode, playing with theatrical forms, evoking historical characters and striving for social significance. Both plays are entertaining and boring, fascinating and irritating, rewarding and trying. But like them or not, these are precisely the sort of plays the WTF should be doing.
The play has always drawn mixed responses. Although it had many champions, a number of theatergoers have thought it the worst play ever and 37 different producers rejected it before it finally got to Broadway. It was first seen at the height of World War II, which inevitably gave it an added dimension. The theme of the play is the human race’s continued survival through various disasters, even if it’s only by the skin of our teeth. In act one, the disaster is the Ice Age; in act two, it’s the flood; in act three, war.
The difficulties we have with the play today are brought about mostly by its whimsies, which include a pet dinosaur and mammoth, and a fondness for knocking down the fourth wall. Yet in the last act, Wilder makes a bid for seriousness with a parade of the world’s great philosophers.
As the raped Sabine woman Sabina, Kali Rocha, who certainly has the chorus-girl legs to match her musical-comedy maid’s costume, is most effective, though we can’t help but muse over how much personality Tallulah Bankhead must have poured into the role originally. Ultimately, however, it’s Mrs. Antrobus who dominates this production, partly because of the outspoken role itself, partly because of Kristine Nielsen’s utterly assured (if sometimes overloud) performance.
Bill Smitrovich makes less impact as Mr. Antrobus, even though the character did invent the wheel and the alphabet, and Thomas Sadoski and Emily Bergl as the Antrobus children Henry and Gladys, respectively, never quite come into focus; something that’s most damaging to the role of Henry, who is also Cain, the world’s first murderer.
Most surprisingly, Marian Seldes, who has stolen more than a few scenes at the WTF, does not do so as the fortune teller Esmerelda, partly because she seems vocally underpowered, partly because director Darko Tresnjak, in a notable WTF main-stage debut, has overproduced and overdirected the play’s Atlantic City second act, using far too many extras and allowing it to be heavy-handed.
Fortunately, Tresnjak is far more successful in the first and third acts, which is a lot to say of any director of such a mythic beast of a play. Most of the time his huge cast responds wholeheartedly, while David P. Gordon has supplied terrific sets.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” is not a play anyone would want to see often. On the other hand, it’s a play no real theater lover would want to miss. Now’s your chance.