A touch of verite enhances human drama in 'The Skin of our Teeth'

June 03, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

WASHINGTON -- Thornton Wilder did not believe in realistic, kitchen-sink-style theater. That's why he could get away with setting "The Skin of Our Teeth" simultaneously in the Ice Age and suburban New Jersey and with having his protagonists celebrate their 5,000th wedding anniversary.

This breach with realism is also why Wilder's 1943 Pulitzer Prize-winning play lends itself so beautifully to theater-in-the-round -- the format in which it is receiving a thoroughly delightful production under the direction of Douglas C. Wager at Washington's Arena Stage.

In the broadest sense, "The Skin of Our Teeth" is about mankind's struggle for survival. The playwright conveyed that struggle in the story he told -- about the fictitious Antrobus family -- as well as in the way he told it.

For instance, the maid, Sabina, repeatedly breaks out of the action, at one point insisting she doesn't understand a word of the script.

Wager, who tosses in a few updated and pointed references here and there, has cast a highly talented black actress, Saundra Quarterman, as Sabina. Costumer Paul Tazewell dresses her in Aunt Jemina garb -- a look that contrasts markedly with her liberated, if not to say sassy, remarks.

Quarterman's casting also adds a political context to Sabina's third-act complaint about always ending up in the kitchen.

) Wager has made some other

slight adjustments as well. Act One is introduced with headlines from "All Things Considered"; Act Two begins in the style of a "MacNeil/Lehrer" broadcast.

These are not only amusing, but appropriate, touches.

Since the action of the play is supposed to span millenniums, it certainly shouldn't appear dated after only 50 years.

However, at a few of the more recent performances, an unexpected coup de theatre further enhanced the play's intentional blurring of the line between life and theater.

Due to the illness of actor Richard Bauer, several times over the two weeks understudy Rob Leo Roy appeared in the lead role of Mr. Antrobus -- inventor of the wheel, lever, alphabet and beer.

Though Bauer is expected back, the substitution brought added meaning to the theme of perseverance.

/# This is not to suggest that Roy

found the role a struggle. To the contrary, the actor (who happens to be a member of Baltimore's Everyman Theatre company) handled it as smoothly as if he'd been playing it all along.

And, his appearance inadvertently enhanced one of the play's most typical Wilderesque scenes -- the moment in the third act when the character of the stage manager announces that seven actors have suddenly taken ill and their roles will be played by the backstage crew. Under the circumstances, it was almost theatre verite.

Of course, the production has more going for it than merely this happy coincidence (which would otherwise be a lot less happy). Halo Wines is a paragon of motherhood as Mrs. Antrobus, and though Jurian Hughes and Teagle F. Bougere can be a bit irritating as the Antrobus children, that's the way they're supposed to be.

Most audiences groan when they discover that an understudy is substituting for a lead actor, and there was some grousing before the start of the performance I attended.

But in this case, the audience was rewarded not only with an accomplished performance but with the joy of seeing a show that did what it was about.

The notion of man's battle to survive was reinforced by the most basic tenet of live theater: The show must go on. Wilder couldn't have scripted it better.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "The Skin of our Teeth"

Where: Arena Stage, 6th and Maine Ave. S.W. Washington

When: Tuesday, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., matinees Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. Through June 13

Tickets: $19-$37

Call:(202) 488-3300

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