Thornton Wilder’s recuperative apocalypse; or, “The Skin of Our Teeth”

Ladies and gentlemen! Don’t take this play seriously. The world’s not coming to an end. You know it’s not. People exaggerate! Most people really have enough to eat and a roof over their heads. Nobody actually starves—you can always eat grass or something…Savages don’t love their families—not like we do.

Last night was the opening of Illinois Theatre’s The Skin of Our Teeth, a play that though written in the mid-1940s still seems to smack of something very modern indeed. In fact, Thornton Wilder was accused of plagiarizing from that quintessential modernist, James Joyce, whose similarities were identified by none other than Joseph Campbell. The clarity and precision of Wilder’s dialogue, however, is that which sets the two voices apart. Even in his own description of the conceit of his play can we see a style to which David Mamet or Will Eno might be drawn:

Here is a comedy about George Antrobus, his wife and two children, and their general utility maid, Lily Sabina, all of Excelsior, New Jersey. George Antrobus is John Doe or George Spelvin or you—the average American at grips with a destiny, sometimes sour, sometimes sweet. The Antrobuses have survived fire, flood, pestilence, the seven-year locusts, the ice age, the black pox and the double feature, a dozen wars and as many depressions. They run many a gamut, are as durable as radiators, and look upon the future with a disarming optimism. Alternatively bewitched, befuddled, and becalmed, they are the stuff of which heros are made—heroes and buffoons. They are true offspring of Adam and Eve, victims of all the ills that flesh is heir to. They have survived a thousand calamities by the skin of their teeth. Here is a tribute to their indestructibility.

As dramaturg Po-Hsien Chu described it, Wilder’s is a “philosophy of survival” while Joyce’s cycle of characters are invested in anything but. Where we might draw a line between the two works is their shared sentiment, that civilization is the universe “heap[ing] miseries upon us yet entwine our arts with laughters low.”

A Telegraph Boy (Colton Adams) delivers his message to Mrs. Antrobus (Cassandra Cushman) while her Dinosaur (Dina Monk) and Mammoth (Kyle Bullock) listen in. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann c/o The News-Gazette.

I must admit that my last review of an Illinois Theatre production at Krannert was rather grumpy, concerned with the mythic theatre the department seems so invested in and yet seems so distant from the community they ostensibly serve. While mythology has been a central course of material for these plays, if we add The Skin of Our Teeth to this mix, I might relabel this investment not in “mythic” but rather in “metaphysical” theatre; that is, theatre that attempts to posit a model or explanation of being and the world that encompasses that experience. Thinking about it in these terms, that makes a kind of sense for undergraduates: putting on productions that posit a range of ontological models. While a few moments were rocky due to opening night jitters on a very large stage space, I was eminently more satisfied as a spectator of Wilder’s meditation on civilization allegorized in the form of a nuclear family rather than the piecemeal theodicy of MTV Olympians. This may be the allure of Wilder’s posture towards allegory as a vehicle through which to awe at the very notion of mankind’s survival as a species.

Sabina (Sarah Ruggles) articulates to the audience her issues with play. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann c/o The News-Gazette.

As members, survivors of our own tragedies as well as those writ large, the audience is positioned to find a recuperative experience from the play (unlike Joyce’s Wake) then, despite Sabina’s (Sarah Ruggles) protestations otherwise. I must admit, I am a sucker for a cleverly dismantled fourth wall within the narrative of a play. Sabina is perhaps the darker side of the play’s take on survival, one who ultimately does remain despite constant impediment but is never satisfied with merely surviving despite her advice “not to inquire into why or whither, but to enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate; that’s my philosophy.” I’ve come to enjoy Ruggles’ delivery, lately featured in the New Short Plays FestivalO Beautiful, and an exceptional Trinculo in The Tempest. She is able to cultivate a measured sardonic wit that gives a sense of criticism and judgment to dialogue that a lazier actress would render merely ebullient. So when Sabina turns to the audience in the end to say “This is where you came in. We have to go on for ages and ages yet. You go home. The end of this play isn’t written yet,” the final sentence doesn’t ring too cleverly, too neatly. Yes, of course we are a humanity that continues to thrive, but in Ruggles her tenor makes us question whether that insistent survival is something we should valorize, particularly in light of global weirding, overpopulation, and contagion. (As a final word on casting, I would have liked to see more of the MFAs in this production. The script is difficult and cerebral, and while I trust it in the hands of Ruggles and Neal Moeller, there were definite stretches of tonal confusion with the interpretive inconsistency of many very young BFAs in the mix.)

A Fortune Teller (Brandon Rivera) portends humanity’s self-destruction. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann c/o The News-Gazette.

Helping the overall tonal consistency of this play is a stunning and coherent scenic design by Drew Lupson. The deconstructed house pieces that suggest both scale and generic-ness reminded me of similarly effective designs from ArcadiaAugust: Osage County, and The Crucible. In Excelsior the house is cozy, and large-scale puppets of a triceratops (one actor) and a mammoth (two actors) play house dogs to the Antrobuses. The windows are massive, and the siding suggested by scrims so that all interiors are at the same time translucent, only suggestions of reality but resisting material certitude of the action’s place in time. Likewise the Gamorrah of the Atlantic City Boardwalk is brightly lit with large billboards that refrain from the gauche, refrain from swallowing the actors but still suggests the extremity of their/our decadence. While at heart I prefer the intimacy of non-theatrical, studio, and black box spaces for my theatre, this production makes use of its proscenium, or rather, unraveling its limits by constantly threatening to burst from the arch’s frame with the signage and deprioritizing the fixity of its frame by the translucency of the architectural lines within it. In short, the combination of smart dialogue, thoughtful performers, and clever design makes this play worth the ticket, if at times just by the skin of its teeth.

Alumni reconvene for new theatre department initiative

The first few weeks of the summer break here at the University of Illinois by a new initiative by the department of theatre. Entitled, “New Voices in Theatre: Revelations and Discoveries,” the pilot program seems to be apart of the the new head’s initiative to expand the scope of the department through creating and sponsoring new work, of which the Sullivan Project is one aspect. The summer initiative worked cleverly in two acts. First, it included a staging of MacArthur “genius” Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size, workshopped with the author before being staged by the Definition Theatre Company. Based in Chicago, Definition is comprised of recent UIUC graduates of the BA program.

Second, Definition produced a New Short Plays Festival at UIUC that included eight one-acts culminating in another short piece by McCraney. Perhaps the only downside of being overseas for most of the month of May was missing this run of McCraney’s work-in-progress, having loved his The Brother/Sister Plays at Goodman a few years ago. I was able to make it to the New Short Plays Festival, however, which was a refreshing change from my diet of William Shakespeare and Noel Coward. The selection of pieces was coherent and compelling, circling around central themes of the American dream-fantasy, online dating, Black culture, and storytelling as a form of identity politics.

Typically consisting of no more than two performers at a time, the selections were geared toward intimate and technically precise performances elevated by exigent dialogue. The performers were mostly members of Definition while supported by a few from the MA program at Illinois. The intimacy of one-act plays can be incredibly pleasurable because of the emotional and performative risks involved, especially here in a black box theatre with no set pieces or costuming but monochromatic chairs around which to work. One-acts are a kind of litmus to the depth and nuance a performer is a) capable of and b) capable of switching between. Having become a Krannert regular over the past five years, this was made all the more pleasurable by the stand-out performances of Sarah Ruggles (The Normal HeartO BeautifulThe Tempest) and the very memorable alum Julian Parker (The African Company Presents Richard IIIMacbeth, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot).

Both Ruggles and Parker are actors marked by a kind of sprezzatura: they make a hard thing look effortless, easy. Both inhabit a vocal tenor that marks their individual styles, but are able to embody and inhabit roles fully and seamlessly. And I mean seamlessly in a literal sense, that they do not expose the seams between themselves and their parts. In the jump from part to part you except to see a bit of seam, a bit of stitching come loose. And yet, you don’t. Furthermore, both actors resist the sentimentality that impassioned plays with a title like “The Space Behind Your Heart” seems to beg. In this, a Christmas eve date between Christian Minglers looking for a second chance, Ruggles doesn’t give into the sappy potential of the conceit, but rather keeps her character on the edge of rejection so that the final wordless moment of sharing an imaginary cup of coffee carries the weight of real acceptance between strangers. So, when Ruggles and Parker share the stage in a first-date game of what-ifs in “Just Suppose,” both seem to plumb the gamut of emotions of utter possibility and utter hopelessness between which we inevitably swing on such occasions.

The new initiative, shaped as a festival invested in challenging work that continues to support UIUC students after they have left their training proper speaks to the department’s changing ideological commitments. Unfortunately, this is it for theatre at Krannert for the rest of the summer (which I can’t blame them for as I thought their might be more actors than audience members five minutes before curtain). I hope the New Short Play Festival is the first of further summer initiatives of such rigor to come.