For Twin Cities Theater Artists, Wilder's 'Midwestern Optimism' is More Vital Than Ever
This piece by Chris Hewitt appeared in The Minnesota Star Tribune on February 1, 2019.
For Twin Cities theater artists, Thornton Wilder's 'Midwestern optimism' is more vital than ever An upcoming production insists that Thornton Wilder still has important things to say.
Thornton Wilder wrote “The Skin of Our Teeth” 77 years ago, but we still haven’t caught up with it. The play’s acts are set in three different time frames, with the final act taking place roughly two decades from now. And, putting that futurist time frame aside, the comedy/drama about one family’s resilience in the face of catastrophic challenges feels very up-to-the-minute.
“Reading it again, I was shocked that the play is as old as it is, considering that it’s still so aggressively inventive, creative, playful in terms of its theatricality,” said Joel Sass, who’s designing and directing the Girl Friday Productions take on “Skin of Our Teeth” that opens this week in St. Paul. “It contains everything that plays of much more recent vintage do, plays that have been praised for their innovation.”
Here’s what Sass means: Characters in “Skin” break the fourth wall to chat with the audience. There’s a play-within-a-play that goes off the rails, much like Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” a recent hit at the Guthrie Theater. And you could say Wilder thinks of time as an elastic concept.
“The play is gleefully, intentionally anachronistic,” Sass noted. “We meet the main characters in what appears to be 1940s New Jersey but they have a mammoth and a dinosaur as house pets and there is a glacier bearing down on the East Coast. Also, apparently the main couple has been married for 5,000 years.”
“The Skin of Our Teeth” zeros in on the Antrobus family as they try to keep a grip on civilization, even as it’s tugged out from under them. “The three short acts are happening in three completely different environments,” Sass said. “Act 1, we’re meeting these people in their suburban New Jersey home. Act 2 is a completely crazy Atlantic City boardwalk in the ’70s and Act 3 is the burned-out shell of their New Jersey home, in what might be 20 years from now.
“When I read it again, I immediately saw why [Girl Friday] chose to produce it,” Sass continued. “It’s really good. It’s inventive and funny and it has moments of really well earned poignancy, this refreshing optimism that asks us to dig in and be better than we are.”
Wilder’s Big Three
It’s the optimism that Twin Cities novelist Charles Baxter (“The Feast of Love,” “There’s Something I Want You to Do”) says keeps Wilder relevant. A creative writing professor at the University of Minnesota, Baxter has taught the Madison, Wis., native’s novel “Heaven’s My Destination.” He often uses quotations from Wilder’s journals to inspire students. He even has a personal connection to the great author and playwright. When Baxter was growing up in 1960s Minneapolis and Excelsior, Wilder was known around the house as “Thornton.” That’s because Baxter’s stepfather was a Yale graduate who studied with Wilder, even co-editing a literary magazine with him.
“When people talk about Wilder, they almost always talk about the characters’ optimism,” Baxter said. “I like that about him, that he constantly found ways to test his Midwestern optimism against a world that wants to do it in.”
All three of Wilder’s plays share that quality, as does his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” “The Skin of Our Teeth” appears infrequently due to its large cast and epic scope, but “Our Town” is a theatrical mainstay (Wilder won drama Pulitzers for both plays). And then there’s “The Matchmaker” from 1954, the inspiration for “Hello, Dolly.” Girl Friday has produced all three plays. In fact, the company’s 2015 production of “Matchmaker” ran concurrently with Chanhassen’s “Dolly.” That classic musical returns to the Twin Cities in April, with a touring production landing at the Orpheum Theatre.
Baxter figures his first exposure to Wilder came via “Our Town,” though he vividly remembers seeing the Guthrie Theater’s 1966 production of “Skin of Our Teeth” as a high school student. Another enduring fave is the Alfred Hitchcock thriller “Shadow of a Doubt.” It was written by Wilder, his glass-half-full trademark balancing Hitchcock’s half-empty glass.
In “Shadow of a Doubt,” the wide-eyed hopefulness of a small-town girl named Charlie (Teresa Wright) is challenged by a visit from the relative for whom she is named, a murderer played by Joseph Cotten. “Optimism sort of wins out in the end, but just barely,” Baxter said. “To use that phrase, Charlie escapes death by the skin of her teeth.” Sass thinks audiences need Wilder’s optimism now more than ever, especially in the form of comedy that’s a lot of fun. “I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that, in addition to putting on my boots and belt every morning, I need to hold onto a conscious desire not to give in to cynicism or despair in the face of what seems to be a pretty obvious rough patch in our national discourse,” he said.
Ahead of his time?
Is it the optimism that keeps Wilder from being mentioned in the same sentences as Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams, despite having written three timeless classics for the stage?
“All of his stories absolutely refuse tragedy,” Baxter argued. “If you think of ‘Death of a Salesman’ or ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ or ‘Streetcar Named Desire,’ Wilder couldn’t write them. You can see more his resemblance to writers of small-town, mid-20th-century communities like Sherwood Anderson or Minnesota’s own Sinclair Lewis.”
One of the tricks to staging Wilder today is resisting nostalgia or sentimentality. Yes, Wilder grew up in the Midwest. But he also hobnobbed with modernist bigwigs such as Gertrude Stein. And “Skin of Our Teeth” borrows heavily from James Joyce’s novel “Finnegan’s Wake.”
“There’s an appropriation of avant-garde writing, which Wilder makes palatable to what you’d call the average theatergoer,” Baxter said.
As a director, Sass is careful to heed both the dark and light elements in Wilder’s work.
“He makes as many uncomfortable, pointed and lacerating proposals as he does ingratiating, enjoyable comic interludes,” Sass insisted. “It’s at our own peril if we use his homespun folksiness to brand him a lightweight, as opposed to provocative and challenging.”
Producing Girl Friday’s new staging of “Skin of Our Teeth” is actor Kirby Bennett, who also plays Mrs. Antrobus (as she did for the company’s 2009 production). She noted that Wilder was also ahead of his time in writing great female characters.
“A lot of these big-cast American plays are 99 percent men,” Bennett said, “but Wilder has all of the qualities I look for: big cast, great literature, relevance and, especially for his time, great roles for women.”
For Bennett, returning to her favorite play 10 years after Girl Friday last presented it feels like reconnecting with an old friend — an old friend with more to say now than ever.
“Ten years ago, we were in that terrible economic trough, which links very closely with the play,” said Bennett, who went on to summarize the play’s message: “We came through the Depression by the skin of our teeth. One more tight squeeze and where will we be?”
If anything, that message became only sharper in the past decade, Bennett said. “The plays lands in so many places that speak to us today: environmental crisis, dysfunctional politics, refugees, world conflict. We’re on the precipice of all of it.”
Perhaps that’s what speaks to us most about Wilder’s work, especially “Skin of Our Teeth”: It pulls us to the edge of the apocalypse and, in the end, offers hope of a way out.
Theater critic Chris Hewitt previously worked at the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, where he covered movies and then theater. Also, he occasionally gets to write book reviews.