WESTMINSTER - The strange, distorted and abstracted play, "The Skin of Our Teeth," is one most theater companies feel obliged to present.
All these companies know why, few know how.
But director Ron Miller, designer Ira Domser and their company of student actors appeared to know both, as Western Maryland College Theatre opened its 1990-1991 season with a production of Thornton Wilder's 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.
The why is because everyone understands that this play has something positive to say about the indomitable spirit of the human race and says it with humor and inventiveness, but seldom with poetry.
The play is Wilder's attempt to come to terms with that ever-present existential oxymoron -- apocalyptic optimism.
Not only does he address this illusive and problematic subject matter, he chooses to do so in a form and a style of great complexity and variety.
The program notes suggest it is a "chaotic comedy," a "theatrical travesty," and a "blank check."
While College Theatre's production has the ability to confound many members of its audience, it also succeeds in clarifying the text as well as any of the dozen or so versions I have experienced.
The story deals with eons in the history of Homo sapiens. We follow the Antrobus family from the Ice Age through the Flood to the end of the Second World War. To detail the plot would only serve to confuse the already confusing more than is necessary to evaluate the play.
Domser's minimal settings serve the script well. The usual approach is to overdo and overdress, and the current "less-is-more" approach succeeds where realism has failed.
The play's original production featured a screen on which slides were projected to fill gaps and clarify the history of the world and its first family.
This production retained the screen and substituted live and taped video in place of the static photos. Further, the director supplied a TV floor manager and crew that provided a clever and welcomed framework in which the action was set. Had the screen been used throughout the production it would have been even more supportive and evocative.
One weakness here was the use of too few cast members, resulting in sparse and weak crowd scenes and in too many of the actors having to play too many parts. This is not unusual in educational theater, but it is still unfortunate.
In his fine essay, "Some Thoughts on Playwriting," Wilder says that, "A play is about what takes place. A novel is what one person tells us took place."
It is interesting that his two most successful dramas, this one and "Our Town," employ a narrative voice. In "The Skin of Our Teeth," the narrator is almost obligatory in order to explain and clarify the persons and events for the audience.
In the role of Sabina -- one of the Sabine Women -- Jennifer Dean brought clarity and directness to her narration to the audience and was effective in managing the shifts from narrator to character and back again that the author demands.
Dean presented her own interpretation in the role originated by Tallulah Bankhead, instead of the carbon copy of Bankhead that has been the typical approach to this meaty part.
As Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (Adam and Eve) Scott Grocki and Suzy Tennyson acquitted themselves admirably.
Tennyson, a newcomer to the WMC stage, spoke slowly and softly, but was most successful, nonetheless, in capturing the essence of the harried housewife, put-upon spouse and frustrated mother of rebellious adolescents.
Her strength showed through all of this, and her fine, feminist speech about women not being what books and plays say they are was a high point of the evening.
Grocki, not a stranger to local audiences, performed a most difficult part in a most admirable fashion. He appears to have found the craft to move beyond technical performance into the realm of theatrical validity, which allowed him to present a strong, forceful and enthusiastic Antrobus who also has his gentle, almost tender, side.
In a role which has been misinterpreted and butchered by dozens of actors, Sierra Hurtt was wonderfully on target. Hurtt not only understood the reason for the Fortuneteller's existence, she also knew how to communicate it to her audience and to clarify that which more experienced actors have obscured.
Despite the always facile and corny conclusion and the often-overextended, talky scenes, this "The Skin of Our Teeth" had more bite than bark and was a production of authority and merit.
Tim Weinfeld Contributing theater critic
Copyright The Baltimore Sun 1990