Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Skin of Our Teeth
Los Altos Stage Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's recent reviews of Tiger Style!, King Liz, Hangmen

The Cast
Photo courtesy of Los Altos Stage Company
Alert! Alert! It's the coldest day of the year and it's only August. An ice wall has moved the Cathedral of Montreal into Vermont, and in Excelsior, New Jersey, dinosaurs and mammoths alike are getting as worried about their survival as are the mounting number of refugees who are heading southward through the brutal cold–refugees like Moses and Homer. And making his way home in the blizzard is Mr. Antrobus, exhausted but exhilarated after a hard day at the office separating M from N in his continuing invention of the alphabet while also discovering ten times ten is one hundred, and–hold your breath–inventing the wheel.

Welcome to the history of the world as told by three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thornton Wilder, whose 1942, modern-set allegory, The Skin of Our Teeth, is packed with Biblical and classical archetypes and with anachronisms reaching back to prehistoric times. Its three acts and nearly three hours take us on a wild and often whacky encounter with disaster after disaster that humankind time and again barely escape–just like the biblical Job–by the skin of their teeth.

Los Altos Stage Company is currently presenting an ambitious, creative, and talent-packed The Skin of Our Teeth, guaranteed to leave us laughing one moment, scratching our heads in confusion in another, and then making "ah-ha" analogies to our own times–all just as Thornton Wilder probably planned. If at times everything seems too ridiculous and overdone, that is in itself likely just more of the master playwright's clever, maybe even devious intentions.

The Antrobus family–father Adam, mother Eva, son Henry (once known as Cain), and daughter Gladys–live in their small-town New Jersey home comfortably appointed and full of encased books against the walls (Yusuke Soi provides scenic design). Mr. and Mrs. A are celebrating their 5000th wedding anniversary. Their last name is a combination of Greek and Latin words meaning "human" and "all" and their telling, first nomenclatures solidifies that they are both the original and the embodiment of all of us humans–past, present and future.

The three acts of the play recount just three of the countless times when disasters like the Ice Age, the Great Flood, and world-affecting wars have brought the Antrobuses (and thus all of us) to near extinction; but unlike the dinosaurs to whom they say goodbye in Act Two, the Antrobus family triumphantly emerge from melting ice, off the ark, and out of war bunkers to survive.

Michael Hirsch plays Mr. Antrobus often as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders as seen in his wide-open, somewhat frightened eyes and a face that sometimes freezes in somber non-expression and far-off distraction. Yet he swells in pride over his inventions, like the huge wheel he rolls into the family's living room, and his heart extends to the cold, starving refugees pounding at the door as the ice and snow ravage them. As the ages progress through the three acts, his real nemesis increasingly becomes his son Henry (Max Mahle), a boy whose original sin against a brother named Abel still haunts his parents and whose quick anger and skill with a slingshot take aim at neighborhood kids and old men in much-coveted wheelchairs.

And while she too can explode in anger against her oft-errant son, Mrs. Antrobus is the one who makes sure to find him when he is lost so he can join the family on the awaiting ark. She also welcomes him home with open arms even after he has served as the hated enemy general during the great seven-year war. With a toothy smile often frozen in non-moving position even as she incessantly talks, Mary Hill is delightfully hilarious as the stereotypical housewife one might have seen on the 1930s big screen or later in 1950s TV sitcoms. Appearing in the midst of an ice-storm disaster in a decorated skirt ballooning with many pink slips underneath, her Mrs. A dons heels and pearls in just a small part of Lisa Claybaugh's comedy of costume designs proliferating throughout the three acts.

Also in the household is daughter Gladys, whom Wilder does not spend that much energy developing into a memorable character but to which Emily Krayn adds color and nuance through terrific adolescent fits, emotional outbursts, and pouts.

It is the family's maid, Sabina, whom Wilder provides the fodder to be the evening's star; and Kristin Walter takes the lines and prompts of his script and soars with a performance that time and again is the night's best. Her Sabina is in many ways the truthteller–at least as she sees it–stopping action more than once to protest a play she does not like: "I hate this play ... Why can't we have plays like we used to like Doubt, God of Carnage, and Rabbit Hole?–plays with "a happy message you can take home with you." (Titles of course have been updated from Wilder's original as are a number of other current-day references throughout this particular production, just as the playwright would surely have intended).

Sabina is the pessimist against Mr. Antrobus's overall optimism. It is she who says things like, "In the midst of life, we are in the midst of death," even though she and the rest of the family themselves somehow never die, century after century.

In Act Two, Kristin Walter really gets to turn it on as, on the Atlantic City boardwalk, Sabina becomes a seductress to an excited, tempted Mr. A, who has just named the bingo parlor hostess, Miss Atlantic City. Mr. A is there with his family to speak as convention president of the gathered Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans, where the other subdivisions of Wings, Shells, and Fins have each sent two representatives. That is particularly convenient since a fortuneteller is predicting "a rainy day is coming" and telling Mr. A to take his family and the paired animals to the boat docked nearby.

Amidst posters of "Make Mammals Great Again" run drunken conventioneers wearing red hats (get the modern-day connection?), just one of dozens of constantly changing roles a four-person ensemble undertakes throughout the three acts. Sam Kruger, Gary Landis, Olga Molina, and Patty Reinhart share responsibilities ranging from now-extinct animals cuddling in the family's living room to a UPS delivery boy in shorts during a snowstorm to backstage crew members who have to step in to read the lines of regular actors now sick with ptomaine poisoning after eating lemon meringue pie with blue mold. Much of both the hilarity and the over-the-top outlandishness of Wilder's script comes from this multi-faced, multi-faceted ensemble.

There is also a lot of added fun through the imaginative use of projections designed by Chris Reber that are screened on both sides of the stage, serving for example in the first act as large windows into their surrounding landscape. Through them, we watch the approaching ice storm and get first glimpses of ancient creatures, delivery boy, and Biblical/classical characters roaming around and soon to enter through one projection that becomes the door. On those screens are interim broadcasts of the local news, announcing with flair that the sun has in fact risen again today and with warnings of the next approaching disaster.

The howling winds of blizzards, the lightning and seat-shaking thunder of an approaching flood, and the flickering lights and war sounds of planes, guns, and bombs are just some of the mastery displayed by light and sound designers Aya Matsutomo and Jonathan Covey, respectively.

At several points, the fourth wall is shattered as Sabina stops the play, edits the script, and explains directly to us what and why she is doing so as other actors and backstage crew come out shocked and furious at how she is going off script. In 1942, such inclusions as well as much of Wilder's farcical, time-and-reality-tripping elements were huge innovations for the stage. In 2024, they now are less unusual and sometimes add to a bit of the tediousness and ho-hum-ness that seeps into this lengthy evening. Even with Chris Reber's excellent direction that combines tongue-in-cheek whims and a pacing to keep the wordy script moving along as quickly as possible, there are times that The Skin of Our Teeth does show its age.

With that said, for a play written right after the Great Depression, completed just before Pearl Harbor, and premiering barely one year into a war where the U.S. was not doing so well, the survival message must have had huge resonance and even inspiration in 1942. In 2024, with so many disasters of climate, political divide, and horrific regional wars bearing down on us, Los Altos Stage Company's revival of the sometimes creaky-with-age The Skin of Our Teeth still could not be timelier to remind us that, yes, if history teaches us anything, we will somehow survive.

The Skin of Our Teeth runs through May 5, 2024, at Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview, Los Altos CA. For tickets and information, please visit, call 650-941-0551, or visit the box office Thursday and Friday, 3:00 – 6:00 p.m. and one-half hour before performance. in a two-hour, forty-five-minute production (one intermission, one pause) by