Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Skin of Our Teeth
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company
Review by John Olson

Also see John's reviews of Fun Home and The Rembrandt


Kelly O'Sullivan and Kareem Bandealy
Photo by Nomee Photography
Back in my high school days, our drama club performed parts of the third act of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, It's the act in which the play's Antrobus family, having already survived the Ice Age and the Great Flood, returns home after a devastating world war. Viewing this play during my teen years, some decades after the last World War (not that many decades, but more than one), the anxiety of the Antrobuses seemed quaint. Even in the troubled 1960s, fears that the world's human life could actually end felt very irrational at the time. In the fall of 2017, though, with reports of flooding in the Caribbean and wildfires devastating parts of northern California, not to mention the threat of war with North Korea, it doesn't feel quaint any more. No question this is the right time for a revival of this play.

On reading the script before ever seeing it on stage, I found it hard to picture the play in my head. Wilder's concept is to show three periods of existential crisis for humanity through the eyes of a single American family—contemporary in every way except for the prehistoric crises they survive. George and Maggie Antrobus live with their two children in New Jersey. George works across the river in New York, where his professional accomplishments include inventing the wheel. At home, the family frets about the fact that it's the coldest day of the year and that the icecap is approaching. There are homeless people and animals (specifically, a dinosaur and a mammoth, played in life-size puppet costumes) begging to come in from the cold.

Viewing this spot-on production directed by Krissy Vanderwarker, the point is more than clear, and the comedy is sharp. Wilder again shows the humanist philosophy so evident in Our Town, but here with a sharp satiric eye that pokes at the egocentrism that has probably always been a part of our species.

Vanderwarker's cast beautifully captures both the humanity and the follies of the characters. Kelly O'Sullivan, a young Chicago actress of impressive range, shows most impressive comic chops as the maid Sabina, the play's narrator and smartest character. Linda Gillum brings nuance to Maggie, the matriarch gamely trying to keep everything together on the homefront even as her husband George (in a smart comic portrayal by Kareem Bandealy) is frequently as clueless as he is brilliant in his invention of things like the wheel and the alphabet. Their children Gladys and Henry are opposite sides of a coin. Gladys is the too-good daughter (played on opening night with bratty charm by Kayla Raelle Holder, subbing for Leea Ayers) and her brother is the dangerously evil Henry, who used to be called Cain, until he killed his brother. Matt Farabee gives Henry a truly psychotic persona that makes George and Maggie's parental support even more touching.

Mieka van der Ploeg's costumes have a funky contemporary look, and those for the dinosaur and the mammoth are fun. The set by Yeaji Kim ingeniously morphs from a bland suburban living room in the first act to a political convention's stage in the second, and back to the suburban home, but in a war-damaged state, for the third act. It miraculously is returned to its pristine state at the play's end—which, as Sabina tells us, is not really the end, as things keep repeating themselves.

It seems Thornton Wilder is back. David Cromer's Our Town of a few years ago that originated in Chicago enjoyed a long run Off-Broadway and another Chicago production just concluded its run. Chicago's Goodman Theatre did The Matchmaker in 2016 and the musical version of that play, Hello, Dolly!, is once again one of the hottest tickets on Broadway. Based on current events outside theater doors, Wilder's humanism and optimism has returned just in time. It's so good to see Wilder back on stage, where he belongs.

The Skin of Our Teeth will play the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, through November 12, 2017. For tickets and additional information, visit www.RemyBumppo.org.


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