The state of the union is exhausted. Year in review articles and memes have mostly become jokes marveling that we’ve managed to make the past few trips around the sun. Even the stories we tell aren’t about conquering our problems or vanquishing evil, but about how tired we are from barely keeping up with the status quo. In the latest Star Wars film, a grizzled and bitter Luke Skywalker watches the galaxy he spent his youth rescuing from the brink of evil slip back into chaos. Some of the best recent horror movies, like The Babadook and It Follows, feature fearsome monsters that our protagonists can’t banish or defeat, but must simply learn to endure for the rest of their lives.
Constellation Theater is currently running Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, a play that neatly aligns with this Zeitgeist of exhaustion, dealing as it does with a 1940s family surviving an apocalypse. It’s a good reminder that we’re far from the first beleaguered generation. Wilder’s Antrobus family is at “sixes and sevens” in 1942, having just scraped through the Great Depression and a world war, only to find another global disaster ready to wash away everything they’ve rebuilt. Teeth makes an argument that, really, every generation has had to make peace with their hard work being constantly eroded. The Antrobus family is heavily allegorical, serving as both a model family, and as Adam and Eve, Cain, Noah, muses, and philosophers. The story takes place in New Jersey in the 1940s, but also, simultaneously, during an ice age, a biblical flood, and all of human history.
“That’s the way it is all the way through,” says their maid, Sabina (Tonya Beckman) breaking the fourth wall to complain to the audience—as Tonya Beckman—in the first scene. “The author hasn’t made up his silly mind as to whether we’re all living back in caves or in New Jersey,” she grumbles. “I hate this play and every word in it.”
She has a point. The most exciting moments of the play are these scenes that stop the plodding plot cold, as the actors play themselves refusing to do a certain scene, or scrambling to make a hasty cast replacement, or missing a cue. These are bright and intriguing moments that unfortunately only rarely punctuate the otherwise dense, symbol-laden three-act drama.
As ever, Constellation makes the best of what they have. The cast carries the almost-three-hour run time with grace—Lolita Marie as Mrs. Antrobus especially finds humorous moments to liven the show—and the run time is diminished, mercifully, with an impressive act three scene change, transforming the stage from storm-swept beachfront to abandoned house, that unfolds in only a few seconds (hat tip to scenic designer A.J. Guban, who has become quite skilled at building mini universes in The Source’s tiny black box). Puppet designer Matthew Aldwin McGee has devised what is without a doubt the best Parasaurolophus that has ever graced a D.C. stage.
Ultimately, the script is a bit of a slog, but Constellation grins and bears it just as Wilder implores us to do. Surely Wilder must still have adoring fans—the play has been widely produced at schools, community theaters, and regional playhouses since its 1942 Broadway debut—and those who see this production will probably find that Constellation has done a commendable service to his work. But the uninitiated may find that this nearly 80 year old play, despite many universal themes, shows its age, and lurches slowly, determinedly, and by the skin of its teeth to its end.
To Feb. 11 at Constellation Theatre. 1835 14th St. NW. $25–$55. (202) 204-7741. constellationtheatre.org.