Chicago Theatre Review
A Cosmic Allegory
The Skin of Our Teeth – Remy Bumppo
Written back in 1942, Thornton Wilder called his new play a “cosmic allegory.” This unusual comical drama transcends time and space as Wilder presents a poetic and learned depiction of the history of mankind. It’s presented in a trio very distinct sections that don’t necessarily form a continuous narrative, yet feature the same main characters. Throughout its three acts, the playwright demonstrates how, despite famine, disease, floods, war, the ice age and many other calamities, the human race always manages to rally together, survive and go on.
The play is set in fictional Excelsior, New Jersey in a “Father Knows Best” present, although it’s stuffed with all sorts of anachronistic characters, events and themes. The title is just one of several Biblical references with which Wilder saturates his absurdist play. The Antrobus family (whose very name means “human”) is headed by George and his wife Maggie, although it’s implied that these two are actually Adam and Eve. They have two children, a daughter named Gladys and a son who’s now called Henry. He recently changed his name from Cain to avoid constant public scorn after murdering his brother. Throughout the play Henry grows increasingly angry and aggressive, culminating in a moving reconciliation with his parents by the end of Act III. As the act continues, the world grows increasingly colder while a massive sheet of ice advances upon civilization. The family’s pet dinosaur and mammoth cry out for food and warmth as the Antrobuses welcome hordes of refugees into their home. The act concludes with the family breaking up all the furniture for the fire, in a desperate attempt to save the human race.
The whole evening is emceed by Lilly Sabina, the family maid. Her name is a reference to the historical rape of the Sabine women. Lilly often hilariously breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience as the actress playing the role. In the play’s second act, set on Atlantic City’s Boardwalk, Sabina has been awarded a beauty queen title by Mr. Antrobus, who has, himself, just been sworn in as President of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals. As the act continues, Sabina attempts to seduce George and become the new Mrs. Antrobus. Haunted by a Cassandra-like Gypsy Fortune Teller doling out confusing predictions and warnings to everyone, a storm increases in strength and promises the end of the world. In the final moments of this act, the play parallels the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark.
The beginning of Act III is interrupted with Mr. Antrobus announcing that several of the cast have been suddenly taken ill. It’s decided that all the behind-the-scene staff will have to take on key roles for the play’s climax and a short rehearsal occurs. Then the act resumes and we discover that a devastating seven-year war has just ended. After Sabina reappears at their New Jersey homestead, Mrs. Antrobus and Gladys, with her new baby, emerge from their underground bunker. George returns from the war, as does Henry, who had turned traitor and fought for the “other” side. The young man’s hostility finally builds to a breaking point before the family resolves their differences and resolutely decides to restore the house and start over again, effectively rebuilding the human race.
Remy Bumppo’s production of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, now celebrating its 75th anniversary, is directed with spirit and humor by Krissy Vanderwarker. She smartly shares the production’s focus between Thornton’s allegorical story about the repetition of history and the timelessness of the human condition with the theatricality of the play. Set within Yeaji Kim’s wonderfully adaptive set and comical projections, this play, which is a little long at almost three hours, is still highly entertaining. Much credit for the humor of this production goes to Mieka van der Ploeg’s tongue-in-cheek costumes. She gets special high marks for her hilarious mammoth and dinosaur duds, along with her Donna Reed-inspired crinoline and apron ensemble for Mrs. Antrobus.
Vanderwarker’s cast is quite exemplary. Incredibly gifted and versatile Chicago actress Kelly O’Sullivan leads the show as Lilly Sabina. This talented actress has been enjoyed in recent productions of “Men on Boats” and “The Humans,” just to name a few. She easily segues between playing the Antrobus’ ever critical maid and Miss Sommerset, the sardonic actress hired to play the role. She alternates between flirtatious and funny, tough-as-nails and tenderly humane. The play ends as it began, with Sabina feather-dusting the living room and spouting the same opening dialogue, all the while urging the audience to go home, leave, depart—the play is over. Ms. O’Sullivan is a true talent, both a competent actress and a deadpan comic, in the tradition of Amy Shumer.
The Antrobus family is lead by a blustering, swaggering George Antrobus, played by Kareem Bandealy. He may be remembered for his excellent performances in Lookingglass Theatre’s “Moby Dick” and the Goodman’s “A Christmas Carol,” among many others. Bandealy is particularly funny in his subtle references to a certain American president and former Miss Universe Pageant sponsor in his Act II speech to the convention of mammals. The always magnificent Linda Gillum captivates as Maggie, the gently ruling matriarch of the Antrobus home. As a character whose strong maternal instincts often outweigh her common sense in larger matters, Ms. Gillum is feminine, unrelenting and powerful. She’s also a first class example of effective and understandable line delivery, incorporating precise diction in every word, not to mention being the mistress of complete character development and understated comedy.
Other standouts in this production include Charin Alvarez as the Fortune Teller, understudy Kayla Raelle Holder as Gladys, Matt Farabee as Henry, Annie Prichard as an officious Newscaster/Announcer and Kristen Magee, particularly droll, as the delightfully delectable Dinosaur.
This long-awaited production by Remy Bumppo Theatre doesn’t disappoint, but it might’ve done well with a bit of gentle editing. Today’s audiences aren’t used to sitting through three long acts; but they’re rewarded by the unexpected humor and profound wisdom that Director Krissy Vanderwarker has coaxed out of this allusion-heavy script. Strong characterizations, artistic technical support and a timely message make this production an appropriate, much-appreciated evening of theatre for today’s generation.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 4-November 12 by Remy Bumppo Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.remybumppo.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.