It's the end of the world as they know it - again

It's the end of the world as they know it - again

Humanity scrapes by, but just barely, in Thornton Wilder’s classic play

By Jenny Lower 01/31/2013

Unadventurous theatergoers may shy away from Richard Kuhlman’s ambitious staging of The Skin of Our Teeth playing at the Ojai Art Center. Yes, a talking woolly mammoth and a dinosaur linger onstage, and yes, Homer, Moses and the three Muses make cameos. The central couple has even been married for more than 5,000 years. The danger is that audiences will fixate on this silliness and, exasperated, throw up their hands. But meaning exists for those who wish to find it, and with this successful production, the search is worth the effort.

Thornton Wilder completed his farce within a month of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and its themes reflect the times: disillusionment with humanity bolstered by a thin but abiding faith in its redeemability. George Antrobus (Ron Feltner) is an Adamic everyman whose marriage to Maggie (Laura Ring) falters under the flirtations of siren maid Sabina (Zuzka Sabata), a blend of Eve and the Lilith of Jewish Apocrypha. Amid violent outbursts from his son, Henry, né Cain (David Stewart), and occasional missteps from his otherwise perfect daughter, Gladys (Julia Wilson), George invents the wheel, alphabet and multiplication tables. At the outset, the Antrobuses face an Ice Age that threatens to extinguish mankind. By act two, they’ve been transported to the Atlantic City boardwalk, circa 1920, with a looming flood. By act three, they’re dumped into a post-apocalyptic warzone. Each time, the Antrobuses skate by, and humanity soldiers on.

It’s an epic production, and the Ojai team deserves praise for taking it on. The show’s biggest strengths are its lavish costumes and set, masterfully produced by wardrobers Sheryl Jo Bedal and Heather Smith and stage designer Neva Ann Williams, which complement the grand scale of the subject matter. They opt for a steampunk aesthetic: the ensuing mishmash of Victorian fashion and raw technology suits the play’s chronological leapfrog.

The set’s upper landing, which remains underused, gets bedecked with giant coglike wheels, creating a sense of dropping into George’s active mind. Costumes, like the action, slide forward and back in time, but always speak beautifully to character — so that naïf Gladys, when she wishes to gain her father’s attention, dresses up her sailor suit with scarlet fishnets; and Sabina, who displays a brutal pragmatism in the wake of battle, wears a cutaway jacket with vaguely military-style epaulets. In the final act, designer Steve Grumette’s bloody lighting evokes their nightmarish reality more eloquently than swordplay.

Feltner brings charm to George’s exasperating frailty, but Ring gives one of the strongest performances as Maggie. She emerges as the play’s moral center, transitioning from hausfrau to suffragette to sage. Sabina, who regularly breaks the fourth wall to complain about the script and suggest skipping scenes, has the hardest work: She must seduce while holding the audience’s sympathy. The role seems intended for a younger actress, but its muscularity requires skill and maturity. Sabata’s stylized perkiness grates at times, but her quieter moments offer depth. By the end she has earned Maggie’s respect, and ours.

Near the play’s close, George asks, “Always beginning again, aren’t we? How do we know it’s going to be different this time around?” We don’t — 70 years later, we’re still facing the brinksmanship that unnerved Wilder, but he believed in the dignity of striving. With this effort, Ojai largely succeeds.

The Skin of Our Teeth, through Feb. 24, Ojai Art Center Theater, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai, 640-8797.


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