The Skin of Our Teeth
Charleston Stage Company
Running through Nov. 12
Dock Street Theatre
133 Church St.
577-7183 or www.charlestonstage.com

With its production of Thornton Wilder’s 1942 play The Skin of Our Teeth, which opened last weekend, Charleston Stage has taken a play that was both groundbreaking and full of borrowed resources and replicated its power nicely.

Wilder was accused by some critics of plagiarizing James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Although Wilder acknowledged being influenced by the work, he stated that “literature has always more resembled a torch race than a furious dispute among heirs.” Wilder was raised in both China and the U.S. He absorbed cultures, languages, arts — everything he read and everywhere he traveled. He spoke several languages. He associated with Lost Generation writers like Gertrude Stein and John Dos Passos. He had degrees from Princeton and Yale. He served in the military. Among his many honors were the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the German Peace Prize.

The Skin of Our Teeth won Wilder a Pulitzer. The play examines an everyman New Jersey nuclear family, placed in the context of several different millennia. The characters and their situations symbolize several different figures and periods. His characters represent basic familial roles, plus biblical ones and more abstract, conceptual ones. Sound a little heavy? It is. Wilder’s play is chock-full of all the politics, philosophies, languages, literatures, and societies that fascinated him. Yet Wilder balances his weighty intellectual matter with lots of (sometimes lowbrow) comedy, much of it in the vein of Groucho Marx, of whom he was supposedly an admirer.

The patriarch of the family, Mr. Antrobus, also represents Adam. His wife Maggie, Eve. They refer to their son Henry’s “old name” as Cain. Henry also bears the mark of Cain on his forehead, which Mrs. Artrobus reminds Henry to keep covered with his hair lest he anger his father with the reminder of a painful memory. Then there’s the Antrobus’ daughter Gladys, who can’t keep her dress down, the sexually sly maid Sabina, Three Muses, Moses, Homer, a dinosaur, and a mammoth.

The play concerns the Antrobus’ (and all humanity’s) struggle with living. Each of the three acts involves the family dealing with an enormous catastrophe. In Act I, it’s the Ice Age. In Act II, a flood of biblical proportions. In Act III, world war. Wilder’s tragi-comedy has the characters coping with life the only way they know how: rebuilding after each disaster. Even after they tire, their hopefulness sees them through.

In this sense, Wilder’s play is cyclical. People of the world suffer catastrophes and then rebuild. Then, failing to learn from their previous mistakes, people create the same problems and the same thing happens all over again. This theme is supported exquisitely in Wilder’s structure, with its epic time spans and looping action.

Wilder draws deeply from Brecht, with actors speaking to the audience, asking them questions and making them part of the action. Norma Lynn Higgins, as Sabina, does this the most, when she drops out of character and refuses to play a certain scene or insults the writing.

All of the performers in this cast do a wonderful job. Terry Davey (Mr. Antrobus), Melonea Locklair (Mrs. Antrobus), Jenny Ploughman (Gladys), and Zack Knudsen (Henry) portray the continually besieged family with real closeness. Higgins injects her role with both humorous sass and sadness, a delicate balance that keeps reminding us of our own roles as humans.

Beautiful set and light design from Stefanie Christensen, props by Michael Christensen, and costumes by Barbara Young add amazing dimension, blending a surreal atmosphere with familiar details. Julian Wiles’ smart direction involves dynamic blocking and a great use of performance space.

Charleston Stage’s production skillfully provides Thornton Wilder’s big themes with a talented cast and a terrific design team. The presentation of a family’s Sisyphean fight to survive and thrive is highly stylized but also highly accessible. The notion of hope is a powerful one, and this production brings it out well.