Voice Theatre performs The Skin of Our Teeth at Byrdcliffe

Phil Mansfield, Christa Trinler and Nancy O. Graham in The Skin of our Teeth (photo by Troy Hahn)

Woodstock’s Voice Theatre has taken on a challenge: a new production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, which opened on July 6 at the Byrdcliffe Theater and will run through the 23rd. Pulitzer-winning or no, it was a strange, innovative play for its time (1942), and it’s a strange (and still innovative) play now. Given its eccentricities – which include frequent breaks through the fourth wall – maintaining the right tone is tough; but there’s no denying that it’s a stagework whose time has come around yet again.

On the surface, The Skin of Our Teeth couldn’t seem more different from the Wilder piece that everybody knows: the universally produced Our Town, which is perhaps unfairly remembered as rather more sunny and wholesome than it actually is. In fact, both plays take considerable liberties with conventional stage narrative techniques, and both deal an awful lot with the subjects of death and loss. The paradox is that, beneath its dystopian settings of mass disaster either impending or just concluded – climate change, evacuation, starvation, extinction, flood, war – The Skin of Our Teeth actually rests on a fairly upbeat core philosophy of human resilience. We keep making the same mistakes over the millennia, but we somehow keep picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off and starting again.

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The three acts of the play follow the doings of the archetypal Antrobus family: George, Maggie, Henry and Gladys – essentially Adam and Eve, their troubled son Cain and the daughter they had to replace the slain Abel – in three different settings, from the Ice Age to a postwar ruin. (In the original, they live in New Jersey; the Voice Theatre version tweaks the text to put them in upstate New York, except for the boardwalk sequence in the middle.) The family starts out with a dinosaur and a mammoth as pets; they take in refugees, then throw them out again; George runs for political office; Henry becomes a general on the opposing side when war comes. Accompanying them through time is a housemaid named Sabina, who functions as the interlocutor with the audience, as well as a disruptive influence in the elder Antrobuses’ marriage. “I hate this play and every word in it,” she says at one point.

If this all sounds like a potential mess, it is; but it’s also audacious and challenging and often quite funny, a literary crux point seesawing between Americana and Modernism. There are echoes of Joyce and Beckett and Brecht, foreshadowings of Fahrenheit 451 and Cat’s Cradle. It was written as a spark of absurd hope amidst the despair of World War II, but takes on new layers of meaning whenever troubled times roll around (there’s a quote from Plato toward the end that could easily be imagined as addressed to a certain orange-complected contemporary head of state).

“Social justice through theater” being Voice’s raison d’etre, it’s not implausible that director Shauna Kanter chose to mount this particular play right now largely on account of the refugee crisis that confronts the Antrobus family throughout Act One. This year Voice Theatre expanded its regular program of student workshops with area high schools to include undocumented and refugee children. And the company has a history of crafting stageworks out of meetings between traditional ethnic adversaries, including Palestinian and Israeli women in Kanter’s 1988 play Pushing Through. “Voice Theatre cuts through barriers of ethnicity, language and nationality, bringing together diverse peoples seeking mutual respect because of their shared experiences of humanity,” says its mission statement.

Humanity, according to Thornton Wilder, stubbornly messes up more than it fixes, aeon after aeon. But he does hold out hope that we can save ourselves, one person at a time. Come along on this wild ride through the Bible, prehistory, mid-20th-century suburbia and the Apocalypse along with the folks from Voice Theatre, including Philip Mansfield as George, Megan Bones as Maggie, Evan Sibley as Henry, Olivia Howell as Gladys, Christa Trinler as Sabina, Nancy O. Graham as the fortuneteller Esmeralda, Phillip X. Levine as the Announcer and a slew of other local thespian talent, both seasoned and novice. Shows begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays every weekend until July 23.

Tickets cost $25 general admission, $20 for students and seniors. To reserve, call (845) 679-0154 or visit www.voicetheatre.org. The Byrdcliffe Theater is located at 380 Upper Byrdcliffe Road in Woodstock.