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Maid Aid: Wendy Howard-Benham's Sabina serves as a guide through the sometimes troubled waters of 'The Skin of Our Teeth.'

On the Wilder Side

Pear Avenue juggles heart and mind in its production of Thornton Wilder's 'The Skin of Our Teeth'

By Marianne Messina

HAVING RECENTLY scraped through the Depression "by the skin of their teeth," American audiences first saw Thornton Wilder's play The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942, months after plunging into World War II—outcome uncertain. They must have found it easy to relate to the precarious situation of Wilder's Flintstones-style Antrobus family, poised on the brink of the Ice Age in the path of a creeping glacier. But audiences walked out of the new play in droves. They probably guessed it was going to be problematic when the maid dropped out of character to tell them that she hated the play and didn't understand it. She also mentions that the playwright can't decide if his characters are "living back in caves or in New Jersey."

The play takes us from preposterous situations (pet dinosaur and mammoth in the living room) to an almost epic scene of struggle between father and son. The tendency of characters to transgress the fourth wall, and the plot to jump from prehistory to apocalypse, from farce to high drama, provides a good bit of the humor, but it also gives the play an erratic tonal quality that's hard to pin down.The Pear Avenue Theatre has taken on the task with results that are quite stimulating, if inconsistent.

Actress Wendy Howard-Benham as the Antrobuses' lively maid, Sabina, gives us a likeable working-class kinda girl. Apart from some uncomfortably hammy extremes, the red-haired Howard-Benham makes her Sabina an amusing confidante we can rely on to steer us through Wilder's waters (of both the Ice Age and the Flood). As mankind faces one cataclysm after another, each character excels at one particular survival skill. The creative inventor Mr. Antrobus (Dan Roach) believes intelligence and learning form the path to survival. Roach easily projects the head-in-the-books nerdiness of a guy who has just invented the wheel, though his dark side could be darker.

Mrs. Antrobus (Lisa Wiseman), struggling to keep her 4,000-year-old family together, survives by perseverance. With stern face and prim demeanor, Wiseman calls up the stoicism of the quintessential Depression survivor, someone in a perpetual mode of "doing without." Henry Antrobus (John Sousa), the son formerly known as Cain, has the gift of unbridled energy that flies outward, wildly, like the rock that accidentally killed his brother. Sousa's portrayal brings out a lack of continuity between Henry the impulsive boy and Henry the angry young man. The point at which Henry drops out of character altogether (to reveal that the Henry role disturbs him) hovers between tragic and absurd. It's kind of a case where the head wants to laugh and the heart wants to cry—which is quite jarring and a fact that might have delighted Wilder, who hated a complacent audience.

The Pear production offers clever ways to bring the audience inside. In one scene, Sabina asks the audience to save the world from the cold by finding and passing forward something to burn in the fire. At this performance, alas, few people budged to save the world—giving cause for some nervous laughter. Imagine our surprise when one or two people actually passed forward scraps of wood found under their chairs. Lindi Press' strong performance as the fortune-telling Esmeralda ventures edgily beyond the fourth wall, a place Press is obviously comfortable in. In a speech about how she cannot tell the past (only the future), Press addresses audience members about aging and life's meaning, looking each directly in the eye, bringing them into a dark, powerful conversation.

As the epochs go by and the play continues to examine which attribute—intelligence, artistry, dogged persistence, love of life, raw energy—has the greatest survival value, each character has his or her day to be hero and to go obsolete. Survival seems to require all of the skills, pushing and pulling over time in an eternal juggling act to achieve some sort of accidental balance. Wilder's play is just such a tossed salad. And this performance forces a bumpy, engaging ride of internal readjustments that might be just what the author ordered.

The Skin of Our Teeth, a Pear Avenue Theatre production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Feb. 6 at 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View. Tickets are $10$20. (650-254.1148)

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From the January 26-February 1, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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