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February 27, 2017

Stepping into Chaos: Arin Arbus directs Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth

Theater-goers tend to know Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning play Our Town, but less so his second Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner The Skin of Our Teeth. The play, an allegory about the fate of humanity, sees one family (Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, their children, and their maid Sabina) through several apocalyptic scenarios and shows how they survive by the skin of their teeth. It opened on Broadway in 1942 and is now in a revival at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg talked to Theatre for a New Audience resident director Arin Arbus about directing this play in the aftermath of the election, comparing Wilder to Shakespeare, and how the play resonates over time.

 
Kecia Lewis, Reynaldo Piniella, Kimber Monroe, David Rasche
photo by Gerry Goodstein

Culturadar: You first wanted to direct this play in 2002. How did this production come about now?

Arin Arbus: I first encountered the play very soon after 9/11. It felt like the timeliest play, and I wanted to direct it, but nothing came of that desire. At the time, I thought if I don’t direct this play now then it won’t be relevant anymore, which, of course, I’ve learned over the last 15 years was very naïve. At various points in the last 15 years there have been moments when I thought this piece feels important again. Jeffrey Horowitz, the artist director of Theatre for a New Audience, and I settled on Skin about nine months ago, prior to the election, so the selection of the play wasn't a response to what has happened in the last few months. But it’s sort of strange and terrifying how relevant the play feels right now. People are scared and confused.  The country is in a crisis. It’s amazing to be coming together with the group of people, in this case a very large group of people, to deal with some of these crises we’re facing today. I’m not at all saying that theater can change what we’re dealing with. I don’t think that’s true right now, but I think this play is a way of dealing with reality and that feels like a positive thing to be doing right now.


Kecia Lewis, Kimber Monroe, and David Rasche
photo by Henry Grossman

 
CR: What about the play grabbed you at that time and made you want to direct it?

AA: It deals with climate change and a refugee crisis. Wilder wrote the play before the end of World War II, and act three occurs after there’s been some unthinkable war, which is what 9/11 felt like. It felt like this city had been through something like that. It’s a very American play and it’s sort of trying to address an American identity. The play has been performed throughout the world, and I imagine it would be powerful in different countries at different times, but there’s something so American about Wilder, and at that time after 9/11 we were sort of grappling with who are we and how we respond to tragedy. Will we get past it? Will we learn something? Will we grow? I feel all that now, again.


Eric Farber and Fred Epstein
photo by Henry Grossman

 
CR: Has anything changed in your approach to directing this play after the election?

AA: For me, and for the actors and the artists working on the production, we feel emotionally connected to this play at this moment, and I hope that the audience does as well. I can’t quite say exactly what I would have done differently were we not right here right now, but I think the emotional connection to the play has intensified by this political climate that we’re in. In times in which people feel secure, in times of optimism, I still think the play would work, but I think it would be a ‘cooler’ experience, to use Wilder’s word, whereas now it feels hot in an emotional sense, more urgent.


Mary Lou Rosato, Sam Morales, Austin Reed Alleman, Andrew R. Butler
Storm Thomas, Fred Epstein, Eric Farber
photo by Henry Grossman

 

CR: What is your relationship to Thornton Wilder’s work?

AA: This is the first original play of his that I’ve directed. Last year I did a new version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at Theatre for a New Audience that he adapted. My mother is a huge Wilder fan and she introduced me to him when I was younger. There’s something about the behavior of his characters that feels very familiar to me. In addition to that, I’ve been directing Shakespeare plays for a number of years. Shakespeare was, of course, a great experimenter, and Wilder also boldly experimented with form. Our Town, which strangely gets a reputation for being sweet and sentimental, was in fact an avant-garde piece of writing. Wilder was attempting to shatter the status quo. At that time, the theater was all about decoration and spectacle, and the idea of stripping down the production and connecting the language into the imagination of the audiences was such a radical thing to do. Part of what I find so amazing about Wilder is that he’s a bold experimenter with a big heart.


David Rasche and Mary Wiseman
photo by Henry Grossman


CR: A lot of people don’t seem to know this play. Why do think it hasn’t become as popular as Our Town?

AA: A couple reasons. Even today, to audiences who don’t know it, it’s a form that is unfamiliar. To me, it’s a testament to its eternal power that it still feels as strange and confusing and surprising to certain audiences today as I can imagine it did in 1942. I think it’s a very difficult play, just from a practical point of view, in that it requires a large company. You have three different locations, a ton of costumes, and there’s unlocking the slippery style of the play, which without transition goes from absurdist farce into a Brechtian theater into something Greek and then a dark American family tragedy. It’s hard to get all those things right. If you can get it right, the play has this strange alchemy and audiences feel the weight of it. It adds up to something that is like a kick in the stomach. 


The company of THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH
photo by Gerry Goodstein


CR: This play poses a lot of questions about humanity. What do you think Wilder offers as the answer?

AA: He was writing at a moment in history where it was clear that the world was stepping into chaos, and people were terrified and didn’t know what would happen. I think he’s offering laughter and hope in that moment. There is something hopeful in this play, but it’s subtle. Somebody described Wilder as a hopeless optimist. Actually, there is a lot which remains unresolved. There is no resolution between Henry and Mr. Antrobus. Sabina breaks the play because the fight gets out of control, and you never find out what happens within the family. Wilder is saying that this argument is never going to end. You can’t eradicate what he describes as evil or conflict within a family or within a nation. That will always be there. The characters grow, but they don’t have a traditional Shakespearean character arc. They don’t change. They remain themselves. Wilder was a realist. I think he believes that humanity’s problems will endure. He puts the dinosaur and the mammoth in there because those are species that went extinct. I think he’s saying that humanity isn’t necessarily going to survive. But they survive the course of the play, these characters. The ideas of the great minds who have come before us offer Mr. Antrobus and probably Wilder a sense of comfort and awe and community through time. The ideas from the past bind us together and also show a way forward. 

 

The Skin of Our Teeth runs through March 19th at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

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Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest) and Days of Rage, and her play The Rapture of our Teeth (a parody of Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth) is published on Indie Theater Now. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also writes about theater for Women and Hollywood and The Huffington Post.



Posted at 10:24 PM

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