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THEATRE REVIEW: Women rule in BTG’s ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’

In the most arresting—and prescient—scene in this production, Maggie Antrobus summons, quietly but forcefully, MANkind’s history of injustice to her gender.

The Skin of Our Teeth
By Thornton Wilder
Directed by David Auburn

Whether by directorial design or acting chops, women rule Berkshire Theatre Group’s vital, textually focused production of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” The 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winning “comedy,” first produced as Americans were crawling out of the Depression and marching headlong to another world war, is a strange, often bewildering tale in three parts about the Antrobus family of New Jersey who survive Ice Age, Great Flood and War. This allegory for how the history of mankind repeats itself is replete with prescient flashes from Wilder that resonate today—climate change, social anomie, political cultural upheaval. How did the Antrobuses survive? How will we?

Danny Johnson as Mr. Antrobus and Harriet Harris as Mrs. Antrobus in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of ‘The Skin of Our Teeth.’ Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

In director David Auburn’s take, the interlocutors to Wilder’s epic are the Antrobuses’ maid, Sabina, played by an incredibly versatile Ariana Venturi; and Mrs. Antrobus, Maggie, played by the inimitable, Tony Award-winning Harriet Harris. In Part One, the not-that-bright Sabina, introduced by a stage manager (this is really a play within a play), hilariously frets, on one hand, about the doom of approaching glaciers and, on the other, if Mr. Antrobus will get home from work on time. Her motto is as uncomplicated as “enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.” Venturi navigates it all as deftly as she does in Part Two when her character appears as blonde floozy Miss Atlantic City, who tempts Mr. Antrobus at a Boardwalk convention. (He’s become chairman of the Order of Mammals and an exemplar of good citizenship.) By the third part, after Maggie and Sabina emerge from a war bunker, a wiser, world-weary Sabina (“you have the right to grab what you can find”) voices existential reason: “That’s all we do, always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again.” Venturi completes the arc, with amazing virtuosity and range.

Lynnette Freeman, Ariana Venturi Claire Saunders and Harriet Harris in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of ‘The Skin of Our Teeth.’ Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware.

It’s no surprise that Harriet Harris grabs the power of Maggie Antrobus and doesn’t let it go. A past master of timing and physical expression, Harris renders a perfectly calibrated performance, especially bringing dramatic focus to Maggie’s monologue in the second act. Like a dutiful spouse, Maggie takes the convention microphone to amplify her husband’s civic virtue. In the most arresting—and prescient—scene in this production, Maggie summons, quietly but forcefully, MANkind’s history of injustice to her gender. Maggie hurls a bottle into the ocean with the message “with all the things a woman knows . . . if it finds its destination, a new time will come.” (How did Wilder know?) In the third part, comedy gives way to drama; the emotional ballast of Harris’ Maggie makes it the strongest of the three acts.

Scenic design, like Auburn’s direction, is uncluttered; discrete period props (e.g. Colonial revival andirons, a 1950’s sunburst wall clock) suggest the all-American 20th-century household. Lighting design skews dark, appropriately. Surprisingly relevant musical selections pepper the show, like Chic’s 1970s disco hit “Good Times” (before the flood hits in the Atlantic City party scene). The show ends with the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” Sings David Byrne, “Same as it ever was.” Or, as Sabina, one of the two heroines in this “Skin,” says “We have to go on for ages and ages.” How true. Just consider the alternative.

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The Skin of Our Teeth continues on the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage on East Main Street in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, through Saturday, Aug. 3. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 997-4444 or go to www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.

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