Wooly mammoths and wars and floods, oh my!

Posted: Thursday, October 01, 2009

Perseverance opens its 31st season with a roller coaster ride of fun and frustration, Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play within a play, "The Skin of Our Teeth."

Set in the 1940s, the play follows the Antrobus family (in which archetypical roles of Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel are mirrored) as they escape impending doom by the skin of their teeth three times. Each time they begin again, they find renewal through philosophy, literature, and religion. They continue to further society through new developments in technology and science, but at the cost of the disintegration and destruction of their own family.

I viewed the play in its first week of production. The opening scene, executed in Vaudevillian style, was strong, thanks to the charming appeal of Megan Behnke and Quinn White, who turned a mundane role of flipping through stage cards into a delightful comedy routine. (Stage cards were used in Vaudeville Theaters as title cards for the various acts and were usually flipped through by a showgirl.) The use of technologically produced stage cards was genius, and gave the set design a fresh feel. This technology showed up again beautifully in Act II on the fortuneteller's stand.

However, Act I soon lagged with the long expositional monologue of Sabina (played by Christina Apathy), delivered in a lackluster rhythm and lacking subtle comedic moments. And though she did have moments of brilliance onstage, I found the blaringly blond wig that she was costumed to wear too distracting.

The play continued to idle as Katie Jensen (Mrs. Antrobus) struggled to find the center of her role. But by the end of Act I, Jensen was on her game, resurrecting the play with new life. Jensen closed Act I with a haunting cry of mourning for her dead son, Abel, and similarly ended Act II with a cry of desperation for her lost son, Cain: two wonderful highlights of the production. Her portrayal of a mother holding her family together was poignant and mesmerizing.

Next, the entrance of the Antrobus' children, Gladys and Henry, played by Mary Erickson and Lucas Hoiland, charged the atmosphere to new heights. Erickson was a jewel, captivating the audience with subtle moments of humor and tender moments of drama. I found myself glued to her even when she did not have the focus - not because she upstaged, but because she was a commanding presence.

Hoiland delivered an unforgettable performance as Henry. This actor seamlessly weaved purity with corruption in playing a misunderstood, innocent boy that grows into an indignant, broken man. He had such control over his performance that his portrayal of the boyish Henry in Act I revealed hints of the mature Henry he would become in Act III, and the mature Henry in Act III exposed glimpses of the boyish Henry he was in Act I. Hoiland's acting in Act I was so imposing that in his absence during Act II, I waited in impatience for his return to the stage.

The biggest disappointment of this production for me came because of a directorial call by Drew Barr in Act III. Barr had directed Hoiland to stand behind the audience during the climax of the play, a decision that cut me off from the power and passion of Hoiland's character and stole my cathartic moment, cheating me from the opportunity to see a talented actor in what I am sure would have been the best performance of the evening.

The biggest payoff was the set design, Art Rotch's brainchild. The minimalist design is full of artistic wit and thoughtful symbolism. From the door hovering over Act I barring or allowing entrance, to the huge oceanic backdrop threatening impending doom, to the destruction of the set in Act III, not one detail was ignored in this masterpiece of design. The choreographed scene change between Act II and Act III was thrilling: the scene exploded sending set pieces and props into the air in a swirling tornado-like dance that ended with a burnt door frame, crumbling walls, and a broken theater curtain hanging askew in the midst of swirling smoke. In the background sat the mirrored make-up stations of the actors themselves as haunting reminders of Wilder's play-within-a-play script. I sat in awed silence during the second intermission, soaking in what I had just witnessed.

So, in spite of my occasional frustrations with elements of this production, I applaud Art Rotch and his theater company for a successful and enjoyable presentation of Wilder's quirky play, and recommend it as one you should not miss. Last performance of "The Skin of Our Teeth" is 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4.

o Michaela Moore, theater director Juneau Douglas High School, can be reached at michaela_moore@jsd.k12.ak.us

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