KU cast gives 'Teeth' to Wilder play

Despite heavy third act, production of 1942 work stays fresh

Guest director Karen Paisley and her cast have breathed more life into Thornton Wilder's 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winner "The Skin of Our Teeth" than most productions even approach. Though the play runs just 15 minutes short of three hours, the time flies by, with never a slow moment until the third act. (More on that later.)

Kacie Dienstbach is electric as Sabrina, the Antrobus family's maid and the play's resident temptress. Her timing is flawless, her expressions exquisite, her mastery of frequent extended monologues consummate, her frustrated comic asides to the audience ("I don't understand a word of this play!") matchless; and the audience never tires of her flouncing, mincing, simpering, pouting, wailing and vamping. It's hard to imagine Tallulah Bankhead doing a better job in the 1942 original.

Lavinia Roberts is solid as the frumpy but spirited Mrs. Antrobus, the soul of nurture incarnate. She finds the character's center in her Act Two watchword: "Save the family."

Her efforts all ring true as she tries to prop up or rein in her idealistic or wayward husband, redeem her troubled son, train her daughter to be ladylike or feed whomever needs feeding. And as Sabrina suggests, she is a tigress when it comes to protecting her family.

Mr. Antrobus is a difficult role, the character harder than the others to bring out of allegory (man as creative spirit and rule-giver) and into the flesh. Carter Royce Waite brings plenty of energy to the part and consistently conveys the character's world-on-my-shoulders angst and fatigue.

Their son Henry (aka Cain) is man-as-destroyer, appropriately played with moody sullenness by Matthew Crooks. His sister Gladys is portrayed charmingly by Val Smith, touching enough to bring tears as she tries to please her difficult father.

Past Event

"The Skin of Our Teeth" by Thornton Wilder

  • Thursday, November 2, 2006, 7:30 p.m.
  • Crafton-Preyer Theater, Murphy Hall, 1530 Naismith Dr., Lawrence
  • All ages / $10 - $16


The rest of the cast, 20 including the family, keep the stage lively in big scenes at the Antrobus home and on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. DeAndrea Herron gives a fine earthy turn as the fortune teller; and Cali Gilman and Jordy Altman steal scenes in wonderfully constructed woolly mammoth and stegosaurus costumes.

Now about that third act. After masterfully conveying serious themes in antic comedy for two hourlong acts, Wilder's muse played him false, resulting in a final act that's so heavy its pronouncements seem to be Given In Capital Letters. The audience gets the message, all right (once more, we humans have survived by The Skin of Our Teeth), but it's ponderously delivered, despite the actor's best efforts.

The opening night performance could have done with fewer shrill giggles from a claque in the balcony, full of enthusiasm for its favorites but at times marring the tone of the scene or drowning out the dialogue.

Mark Reaney's sets are pleasing, with the Antrobus home reflecting centuries of human accomplishment: Stonehenge, the Mona Lisa, the guillotine, a Pharaonic mummy case, a Gothic stained-glass window, etc. The second act's Boardwalk colorfully sketches in a few mild vices, with booths for bingo, Turkish baths, fortune telling and the like.

- Dean Bevan is a professor emeritus of English at Baker University. He can be reached at bevan@ku.edu.


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