“The Skin of Our Teeth” Turns Absurdity into Commentary

At 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 14, I entered the Pearson-Hall theater in LPAC ready to watch “The Skin of Our Teeth” by Swarthmore’s Production Ensemble and directed by K. Elizabeth Stevens, chair of Swarthmore’s theater department. I emerged two hours later with no clue what I had just witnessed but knowing that I loved every minute of it.

“The Skin of Our Teeth” is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning drama by American playwright Thornton Wilder, who is perhaps most famous for “Our Town.” The Production Ensemble only performed the play’s first two acts, shortening the third act into a brief epilogue. The story is centered around the Antrobus family in the fictional town of Excelsior, New Jersey. Though the customs and household of the Antrobus family imply that the play takes place in 1942, history is jumbled and minced and compressed to the extent that it is impossible to know for certain. The first act begins with Sabina (Shay Downey ’22), the family’s maid, delivering a monologue in the family’s living room to announce the arrival home of Mr. Antrobus (Daniel Oakes ’24) from his job. We learn Mr. Antrobus is inventing crucial tools such as the wheel, the alphabet, and multiplication tables. Moreover, humanity is facing extinction because there is a massive slab of ice traveling downward from Canada. As Sabina argues with Mrs. Antrobus (Rose Palmieri ’24) about housekeeping, refugees including a dinosaur (Drew McMahan ’22), a woolly mammoth (Zivia Jane Lichtenberg ’23), the prophet Moses (Maia Glass-Quicksall ’25), and the Greek poet Homer (Lichtenberg) enter the home. The Antrobus children, Henry (Michael Nutt ’23) and Gladys (Selma Wu ’25) arrive home from school and attempt to entertain their father. The act ends with the fire going out and Sabina pleading with the audience to pass up their chairs so that they can feed the flames and keep humanity afloat for a while longer.

The second act takes place at the boardwalk of Atlantic City, NJ. The act begins with Mr. Antrobus assuming the presidency over the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans. The actor playing Mr. Antrobus says that he hates this act and wants to do anything else, so he hands over the role to McMahan and assumes the role of his stage daughter, Gladys. A hurricane washes over the boardwalk while Mr. Antrobus is supposed to appear on an important TV broadcast, and the Antrobus family directs two pairs of each animal into a boat to save them.

After the conclusion of the second act, something unusual happened: the stage dropped to about six feet below the audience, and the actors disappeared offstage into LPAC basement. They return through a door filled with smoke in KN95s and full-body protective suits, rearranging mismatched props in the space until it resembled the immaculate original living room of the show. In this post-apocalyptic setting, Sabina begins to deliver her monologue about Mr. Antrobus coming home again, indicating that the events of the play will recur over and over again until after the end of time.

In “The Skin of Our Teeth,” “Chekov’s gun” — the concept that in drama, all details must be in some way relevant — simply does not apply. Characters, like the dinosaur and the woolly mammoth, come and go without any explanation as to why the Antrobuses allow them to stick around for so long. Characters sing “Jingle Bells,” a tune that has no relevance whatsoever to the story. The son, Henry, inexplicably disappears for most of Act II. The actors aren’t playing characters — they’re playing actors, and what the audience sees is ultimately a play within a play. Actors change roles with little explanation, and Downey “breaks” character several times, only for a voice over a loudspeaker to tell her to start acting again. 

The only logically consistent aspect of the show is the presence of the Antrobus family, who are a perfect American family with healthy young children, a stay-at-home mom, and a dad who brings home the bacon, and an immaculate house presumably bordered by a white picket fence. Never mind that the actor who plays Mr. Antrobus changes halfway throughout the show, the Antrobuses have been married for 5,000 years, and their son was originally named Cain but changed his name to Henry after killing his brother, Abel. Though the play never makes an explicit connection, Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus are stand-ins for Adam and Eve. The reason that they do not have first names is that they are, above anything else, a symbol that nearly every culture in the world can identify — matriarch and patriarch. They do not only parent Henry and Gladys, but humanity as a whole in their roles as President and First Lady of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans. The religious symbolism is just another reminder that the Antrobus family is not an isolated phenomenon in the history of humanity. Their story, like that of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, is timeless and so potent because of its reflection of the irrationality of human nature.

Madeleine L’Engle’s comparison between life and a sonnet from “A Wrinkle in Time” comes to mind — just like a sonnet, life has countless rules and standards to follow. Between them, however, people have some freedom to choose their own paths. “The Skin of Our Teeth” is the exact opposite; in the play, everything is defined by nonsense and jumbled chronology that hazily draws a connection between the Antrobus family and Abrahamic mythology. But within the broader context of absurdity, what emerges is a powerful story about humanity’s resilience through natural disasters, time being a set of repeating circles, the immortality of the American nuclear family unit.

Downey and Palmieri gave standout performances as Sabina and Mrs. Antrobus, respectively. Downey’s campy yet earnest performance as Sabina stole every scene that she was in, both as scantily-clad-housemaid Sabina fed up with the way her employers treat her and as scantily-clad-beauty-queen Sabina in Act II who will do anything to win over the affections of Mr. Antrobus. Palmieri grounded the show with her consistent performance as Mrs. Antrobus, the one character whose behavior remains consistent throughout the show and is therefore the only sane (or insane, depending on how you see it) member of the ensemble.

“The Skin of our Teeth” was acclaimed at the time of its original production in 1942 because of the way that it broke countless established theatrical conventions. The extent to which it holds up nearly 80 years later in 2021 is shocking and shows just how brilliant of a writer Thornton Wilder was. The brilliance of K. Elizabeth Stevens and Professor of Design and Set Designer Matt Saunders accentuated the lack of convention in the show’s text, and exacerbated the lack of adherence to established theatrical conventions. 

The most memorable aspect of the play was the set design, which was unlike any set that I had ever seen before. Prior to “The Skin of Our Teeth,” I had watched a production of Rajiv Joseph’s “Describe the Night” at the Wilma in Philadelphia, whose set design was also by Saunders. I was so blown away at the set design for “Describe the Night” that I still talk about it whenever I get a chance. Seeing a play with a set by Matt Saunders, based on a sample size of two, is an experience I cannot recommend enough.

The set consisted of three platforms — the two front platforms comprising the stage and the backmost platform containing four rows of audience — that could move up and down mechanically. The audience was made aware of the stage’s unique property near the beginning of the first act, when the once-level Antrobus living room became tiered through a set of vertical shifts that made clear that “The Skin of Our Teeth” was not going to be, as it initially seemed, a run-of-the-mill show about a twentieth-century American family. The instability of the world of the Antrobuses was exacerbated at the end of Act II, when the entire four rows of audience were lowered an entire floor into the basement of LPAC. I’ve never seen a bad production from Swarthmore’s Production Ensemble or Senior Company, but the masterful set design and direction thereof made “The Skin of our Teeth” a show that I (and other members of the audience) will never forget.

The Production Ensemble’s take on the timeless “The Skin of Our Teeth” seamlessly incorporated so many concepts and novelties in its production that I am unsure whether or not an explanation in text can do it justice. Live theater, a three-dimensional and breathing art form, has so much more depth than written material. That is, after all, the entire reason that we adapt written scripts into live theater. While in the age of CGI and computerized effects the novelty of special effects in live drama has evaporated somewhat, I can’t help but wonder what the first readers of Wilder’s Magnum Opus must have felt when reading that the play involved a woolly mammoth, a dinosaur, and a hurricane — along with whatever unconventional aspects penetrated the third act of the play. At its very core, “The Skin of Our Teeth” is not only a masterclass in satirizing the irrationality of the human species, but also a reminder of drama’s capacity to draw attention to the human condition through showcasing its preposterousness. “The Skin of Our Teeth” reminds us that even the most absurd of fiction is best executed when rooted in some shared sense of reality.

Anatole Shukla

Anatole Shukla '22 is an Editor Emeritus of The Phoenix. He is from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and studied economics, linguistics, and Russian language while at Swarthmore.

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