If you were to watch Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “The Skin of Our Teeth” and not fully grasp what is happening, no worries, you aren’t alone.
As a matter of fact, Susan Evans sometimes feels the same way. Hell, even some of the characters in the play feel the same way. And those characters don’t hesitate to share that with the audience.
Evans is the artistic director of Hayward’s Douglas Morrisson Theatre, and the director of their current production of the other Wilder play – you know, the one that is not “Our Town.” She remembers performing in the play in college and having some trouble figuring out what was going on herself.
“As a student, I was baffled by it,” said Evans.
She is hard at work getting ready for her theatre’s production, which opens on Friday, May 21st. Evans admits to loving seasons that feature themes, and “The Skin of Our Teeth” is all about a journey, much like the other plays in their current season. In this case, we are talking about the journey of a very different kind of family that lives in a suburb of New Jersey.
The play opens with an introduction to George and Maggie Antrobus, a kind of allegorical Adam and Eve, married for a solid 5,000 years. They are the first family of the human race, along with their sassy maid and two children. They navigate a treacherous world, having to survive the Ice Age, floods and wars, all by the skin of their teeth.
Despite the somewhat enigmatic nature of the play, it has been wildly successful and heavily produced since its premiere in 1942. It also features critically important themes, especially those such as humanity’s need to pick themselves up from their bootstraps and move on after another manmade or natural disaster. It also advocates for the critical nature of art and literature in our society.
This chaos and absurd nature of the plot is precisely the point. Woolly mammoths and dinosaurs are pets, and blatant breakings of conventions are strewn throughout the script, not only making the play a bit tricky to follow, but a whole lot of fun to stage and create.
Evans has loved directing this play because it has forced her cast to break out of a more conventional acting style and take on a style she calls “Meta Theatrical.” It also gave her a chance to work with live music on stage in order to create lots of real time sound and foley effects, which she is having a blast with.
In this play, bigger is certainly better.
“There is something more of an epic theatre style to the play, similar to Bertolt Brecht or Luigi Pirandello,” said Evans, referring to two dramatists who pushed away from a realism and representational style of acting. “I’ve told the cast that it’s okay to be this big, they can be authentic and real and highly theatrical. It’s a big jump for them to be full out, full front and still be authentic.”
The authenticity of the production plays well with its theatricality.
“We are making the audience super conscious, and they are watching actors playing characters rather than the audience going into someone’s living room,” said Evans. “We are letting the audience know they are watching a piece of theatre with a capital t.
“The audience doesn’t have to necessarily understand anything, and can even agree with characters that don’t understand this play. The audience gets to kind of go along for the ride.”
Evans has been struck with the timelessness of the play, and despite the fact that the play is 83-years-old, that doesn’t change the important message of the piece. Evans also referenced the fact that the play has been hugely important to audiences in Europe, who have had to take on survival throughout their history, especially during World War II, when the play debuted.
“The impact of war on Europe was strong, and they gravitated towards what is important in the world and what you really need,” said Evans. “Characters in the play go through worse disasters in the world and keep on going. That was certainly an important message in 1942 and is certainly an important message now.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Douglas Morrisson Theatre presents “The Skin of Our Teeth”
Written by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Susan Evans
May 21st – June 14th
The Douglas Morrisson Theatre
22311 N. Third Street, Hayward, CA
Tickets range from $21 – $32
For tickets, call (510) 881-6777 or visit www.dmtonline.org