Timeless ‘Skin of Our Teeth’ play taught humanity, crises management

Posted November 6, 2017

By day he is Nathan Brown, an elementary education major at UW-River Falls. By night he is Henry Antrobus, son of George and Maggie Antrobus who have been married only 5,000 years. His two personas could not be any more different, at least on the surface.

Henry Antrobus is violent and short-tempered. Nathan Brown is well-mannered and polite. Playing the part of Henry Antrobus, Brown said, took a bit of a learning curve and required that he explore parts of himself that he had not considered before.

“It brought up a lot of emotions that definitely exist within me and definitely exist within other people,” Brown said, “but we often prefer to think that they don’t exist.”

Henry Antrobus is one of the main characters in the play, “The Skin of Our Teeth,” which was written by Thornton Wilder in 1942. The production was performed for the last time on Nov. 4 by the UWRF University Theatre, but the themes it touched on can be applied beyond the stage.

“’The Skin of Our Teeth,’ could have been snatched from today’s headlines,” Director Kathy Welch wrote in the performance program.  “It is timeless, because it is about the human condition.”

The play is broken into three acts, each one centered around a cast of seemingly immortal characters. Henry is the rebellious son of George and Maggie Antrobus. George and Maggie have a strained marriage that is constantly put to the test when George chases after Sabina, a younger, more tempting woman who flits in and out of their lives. George and Maggie also have a daughter, Gladys, and they had an older son, Abel, who Henry killed. It’s mentioned several times throughout the play that Henry’s real name is Cain and that he had to change it after the incident.

“Henry is the embodiment of the evil and hatred and all of these negative human emotions,” Brown said. Every character, he said, is supposed to be an archetype or example of some trait in humanity. At the same time, however, the play also takes pains to strip away the archetypes by frequently breaking the fourth wall, intentionally messing up scenes and admitting to the audience that it’s just a play and the actors in it are just people.

“If you were to take one thing and apply it to real life, know that there is a reason as to why people act the way they do,” Brown said, “even those that you disagree with or dislike, ultimately, they’re just a product of their upbringing.”

Jake Marvin is an undecided freshman at UWRF, and he attended the performance on the evening of Nov. 3. The play, he said, was a bit difficult to understand at first.

“I could see, definitely, the appeal of the play. I was very confused at first, but I started to get more into it as time went on. It was a lot thrown at you in the first act.”

The time frame is one of the more confusing aspects of the play, since the characters seem to be able to live through multiple thousands of years in Earth’s history. In the first act, the characters are doing their best to survive the Ice Age, with little to no food and a fire that constantly threatens to go out. In the second act, they are on a boardwalk at the edge of an ocean that is about to undergo a biblical flood. In the third act, everyone is picking up the pieces after a catastrophic war that closely resembles World War II. In short, some of the biggest calamities to hit humanity.

“It’s interesting that that’s (Thornton Wilder’s) take on it,” said Jane Budworth, a member of the Red Hat Society (a group of women aged 50 and above who go out and have fun together) who attended the play. “What was going on at the time,” Budworth said, “You know – World War II – was like the end of the world.”

“ – As we know it,” added Katie Lee, another Red Hat member who was sitting next to Budworth. R.E.M.’s song, “It’s the End of the World,” was playing in the background after the show as the audience members filed out of the theatre.

An analysis by Ashley Gallagher from the Thornton Wilder Society said that one of the overarching themes of the play is the idea of humanity surviving despite the worst that can happen: “As each new crisis arises, the same evils are present and the same rebuilding must commence. The play’s title in itself ‘announces the theme, which is that no matter how hard pressed or frightened, the human race has (the) power to survive.’”

“It was so well done,” Budworth said. “The acting and the costumes were fantastic.”

The University Theatre will be presenting other plays over the coming academic year. The 2017-2018 Season lists “Beyond Therapy,” which will be playing Dec. 5-9; and “Silent Sky,” playing Feb. 22-24 and March 1-3. More information can be found at www.uwrf.edu/SASA/UniversityTheatre.