Skin of our teeth

The show must go on –– praises be! –– and for its 46th season, the Hangar Theatre follows the Cherry Arts’ lead and joins theaters across the country striking out into the perilous territory of live online productions. And if Saturday evening’s virtual performance of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” was any indication, it’s going to be an exciting summer.

I live out in the country in a frustrating “dead zone” where bandwidth is nil, so to enjoy the performance I journeyed to town, parked comfortably near Ithaca College’s reliable Wi-Fi, and settled in with my laptop for a two-and-a-half hour drive-in show. A friendly campus policeman stopped by, but otherwise it was just me and Wilder’s fantastical drama, bizarre back in 1942 and still on point today.

For the pre-show, Mayor Svante Myrick chatted with attendees on favorite movie scenes and reminded us that in these days of confinement, it’s ok to relax and enjoy the arts –– “the dishes will never be done.” Director Michael Barakiva welcomed the audience, as always, and the action began with Sabina (an electric, dazzling Darcy Rose), the “maid” in the Antrobus family, informing us she’s reluctant to play her part.

Other actors occasionally break the fourth wall, while the narrative itself jostles time and place in a melée of cultural references. Act I shows the New Jersey family trying to survive the encroaching Ice Age; Act II brings storms and floods, which the family narrowly escapes Noah-like by boat, complete with animal pairs; in Act III they’ve just endured a war (the enemy army led by the aggressive Antrobus son, Henry, AKA Cain (played with apt passionate contradiction by Miles Guitierrez-Riley).

The time frame for these life-threatening disasters is vast, all human history essentially: the patriarch, George Antrobus, is daily off busily inventing (the alphabet, the wheel, the multiplication tables); he and his wife Molly are about to celebrate their 5,000th wedding anniversary. With this gigantic scope, Wilder puts much human folly on display (particularly violent anger and sexual philandering); he subjects his family and their community to terrible catastrophes that have ever daunted the human spirit. Facing disaster, George persists: “At least the young ones may pull through.”

It’s a perfect play, of course, for our times. “The Skin of Our Teeth” refers to how people once outlasted The Great Depression, and the story’s enormous scale invites us to put our own problems in perspective. Events are dire, but Wilder’s exaggeration creates irresistible comedy as well. One especially delightful element: the family pet dinosaur, rendered by Austin Jones, colossally nuzzling our screens.

This show features 25 accomplished local actors, all broadcasting from separate locales. And with so many cameo roles, from Bob Moss and Jacob White to J. G. Hertzler and Celia Madeoy, it’s like bringing familiar faces into your home. The screen may frame only one actor but is more often divided into two; or more –– for some scenes, as many as a dozen frames show up, yet they’re never confusing. Rather, the many screens effectively convey the multitudes Wilder invokes.

And the close-ups create intimacy and show the actors’ abilities to great advantage. You see every nuance of expression, and curiously, it’s as if they’re in the same acting space. Obvious devices –– like passing an object from one person’s screen to the next –– are amusing. And unlike a few of the New York-based virtual scenes I’ve seen lately, the production values here are high: good lighting and splendid sound (for both actors and ambiance). (So yes, every seat provides excellent viewing). During intermission, along with jaunty 1930s music, there’s even a shot of a youthful audience filling the real Hangar. 

The play’s own next generation offers mixed hope: Henry’s a rebellious menace but his sister, Gladys (a winning Sandrinne Edström) plays along, following mama’s advice. Mrs. Antrobus is the family’s powerhouse, and Cynthia Henderson brilliantly invests her with a will of steel. She steps up when her husband can’t, keeps the home fires burning, and while not always gentle and loving, is irrepressible –– Wilder’s eternal feminine, the life force itself. 

Stephen Cross’ Mr. Antrobus persuasively spans the masculine gamut, from hearty  

pater familias, revered breadwinner, and tireless inventor to would-be defector. After five millennia of duty, he’s fed up, vulnerable to the temptations of power and pleasure Sabina promises. It’s only us, she argues, “other people don’t have feelings.”

But after the ravages of global war, when even Mr. A. has lost the desire to begin again, it’s Mrs. A.’s strength that prevails. She insists on her vision of a future, a community, that needs rebuilding. Sabina, ever the Doubting Thomas, asks, “How do we know it will be any better than before?” Even the fortune teller (a pessimistic Susannah Berryman) can’t assure anyone of that. But Wilder opts for hope.

Re-enacting his nearly 80-year-old fiction, this creative ensemble entertainingly raises the same existential questions that worry us today. We might even be inspired to cautious optimism, as Sabina, back in the Ice Age, once expressed: “If the dinosaurs don’t trample us to death, we’ll live to see better days.” 

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Hangar Virtual Streaming SummerSeason (one performances only, Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.):

• “Uncommon Excerpts and Others: The Wendy Chronicles” from the works of Wendy Wasserstein (June 20)

• “Queens Girl in the World, by Caleen Sinnette Jennings (July11)

• “Honk Your Horn –– Celebrate Musical Theatre” (July 25)

• “Sense and Sensibility,” Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen (Aug 8)

Tickets $20, students $10: 607.273.ARTS

Hangar’s KIDDSTUFF shows for the young ’uns continues this summer –– free and online (Saturdays at 10:30 a.m.). Four world premieres, all new, local adaptions of classic stories: 

• “Twelve Dancing Princesses” (June 13)

• “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (June 20)

• “The Magic Paintbrush” (July 18)

• “The Velveteen Rabbit” (July 25)

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