“Stella!” the woolly mammoth roars, and the American culture of the 1940s escapes into the 21st century by the skin of its teeth. Surprisingly, it feels right at home.
Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre opened the final shows of their current seasons over the weekend with classic pieces that bookend that strange and transformative decade of American history. Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (at Artists Rep) opened on Broadway in October 1942, less than a year after the United States entered World War II. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (at Center Stage) opened in December 1947, as the nation and the world were still getting used to the war’s end and trying to establish some new sort of normalcy.
By far the more optimistic play is the one actually created in wartime, Wilder’s audacious comic overview of humankind’s stumbling progress from its beginnings. The Skin of Our Teeth is something of a rallying cry in bleak times, a promise that even when we take five steps backward, we usually manage to make them up and take a tentative sixth step forward. A Streetcar Named Desire is steeped in the realities that settle in after the crisis has been overcome, and the sense of progress that seemed to sustain us seems suddenly to have been illusory, a curdled dream: how quickly we are wired to forget. Restless for Utopia now and embittered that it doesn’t magically appear, we make ourselves miserable. It is part of Williams’ genius that the misery he creates is so attractive.
The Skin of Our Teeth, directed by Artists Rep’s artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez, is stuffed fuller than a Thanksgiving turkey, overflowing the company’s compact Alder Street stage with people, places, and a hodgepodge of things. It’s got the rabble and the babble of the history of the world to contend with, and sometimes things get a little hectic. It’s also about as much fun as a play about existential peril and the human flaws that create it can be.
Wilder always thought big, beyond the realities of physical place and time. He was fascinated with the borderlands between existence and nonexistence, or altered existence, and the position that humans inhabit within the expanse of the universe. Our Town famously hops back and forth across the great divide between life and death. His novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey tells the stories of a handful of people who are united in life only when they plunge to their deaths from a snapped bridge in the Andes. His imaginative works ripple with ruminations over fate, meaning, and the nature of life, and in The Skin of Our Teeth he approaches his obsessions with the sly humor and dead earnestness of a master clown. The line between civilization and savagery in the play is as frayed as that Andean bridge, and as personal as it is cataclysmic, as involved with the tiny rituals and habits of everyday living as with the great sweep of history.
So we have the Antrobus family, of Excelsior, New Jersey, on one level as chirpy and blandly ordinary as a 1950s television sitcom clan, and on another level about as strange and charged with meaning as a modern American suburban family can be. Mr. Antrobus is at once a hardworking executive in the City and old man Adam himself, the father of us all. Mrs. Antrobus is a doting parent and Eve out of the Garden. Daughter Gladys is caught betwixt and between. Son Henry has another, forbidden name – shhh! Cain! –a penchant for troublemaking and a telltale mark on his forehead; there was once another brother, whose abruptly shortened existence is rarely mentioned.
The Antrobuses keep a dinosaur and a woolly mammoth as family pets, reminders of life’s savage roots, and the play hopscotches across time: Moses comes down from the mountaintop, ranting rules; some old Greek blind poet wanders around the stage chanting songs. A few crises seem remarkably up-to-date. Environmental disaster (not global warming, but an Ice Age.) Refugees knocking desperately at the front door, looking for safety and sparking arguments over whether they should be let in. Wars and rumors of wars. Death enters. Life overcomes. And hopefully, optimistically, the family stumbles on.
Amid all the turmoil, a handful of excellent performances carries the day and makes this classic much, much more than a dusty period piece. Don Alder, a little worn for wear and slightly distracted and more than a little exasperated with life in general but also with a sturdy can-do attitude and a cautiously unyielding defiance of the dangers of life and a protective streak a mile wide, lives and breathes the spirit of Mr. Antrobus. Linda Alper, with her wry humor and generous spirit, is an ideal Mrs. Antrobus. Truculent Shawn Lee and excitable Val Landrum as Henry and Gladys neatly play the kids, and a veritable all-star supporting cast including Vana O’Brien, Michael Mendelson, Lauren Modica, Sarah Lucht, and Chris Harder, along with child actors Dámaso J. Rodriguez, Eva Rodriguez, and Sky Jude as the telegraph boy, the woolly mammoth, and the dinosaur, respectively, carries the play’s considerable action forward.
Driving everything is Sara Hennessy’s sharp, funny, turn-on-a-dime performance as Sabina, the family maid and occasional femme fatale, who provides just the right balance of whimsy and vexed practicality as she addresses the audience about the absurdity of the play she’s acting in, setting the tone of Wilder’s frank theatrical artificiality and delivering it with an ever-so-slight wink.
Rodriguez keeps the pace swift and rhythmic even when the stage gets jam-packed, and the show looks as smart and playful as a ten-gallon hat on a two-gallon head can look. Gregory Pulver’s witty costuming is just this side of the Sunday comics pages. Kristeen Willis Crosser, like the Author Himself, lets there be well-aimed light. And Megan Wilkerson’s expansive scenic design, like the play itself and the unlikely survival of its contaminated but resilient species, brilliantly defies the odds: if the stage were blown out any further, it’s be slopping over onto Burnside Street. Carry on, nurse. We’re only human.
Over at Center Stage, A Streetcar Named Desire is gliding down a very different track. Wilder deals in frank metaphysical fantasy. Williams is the acknowledged poet of that special brand of theatrical romanticism known as American realism. Like Brecht, Wilder wants us to always remember we’re in the theater. Like the Greeks, Williams wants to create an emotional reality so intense that we forget at some level that we’re watching a story unfold: in our emotions we almost become the characters on the stage.
Dour things are happening down in New Orleans, where Stanley’s working hard and playing poker with the boys, and Stella’s keeping Stanley happy on the big bed in the corner, and then Blanche shows up with a big attitude and a trunkload of fancy clothes and a great big sob story and a few secrets bound to upset the carefully balanced apple cart. The play, and G.W. Mercier’s delicately filigreed two-story set for this production, make a silent and significant character of New Orleans itself, with its stately ruination and mingling odors of aspiration and decay.
Center Stage and director Chris Coleman create a full-on sensual backdrop (the rich costumes are also by Mercier; glow-amid-the-gloom lighting is by Ann G. Wrightson; nervously textured sound design by Casi Pacilio) for a play that is brilliantly written but also relies on an unseen sense of possibility and dread. Something elemental electrifies Streetcar, a play as deeply involved in its micro way with the mysteries of human nature as The Skin of Our Teeth is with its wider lens.
Most of the actors in Center Stage’s Streetcar are African American, including Blanche (Diedrie Henry), Stanley (Demetrius Grosse) and Stella (Kristen Adele), plus Blanche’s not-quite-love-match Mitch (Keith Eric Chappelle), and it both doesn’t matter and changes the play’s dynamics in subtle ways. A black Streetcar is unusual but far from unheard of: the tradition goes back at least to 1953. The shift quietly underscores the differences and similarities between class and racial identities – Streetcar is partly a struggle between Stanley’s working-class background and the sisters’ wealthier past – and it also neatly reflects the tight-knit black communities of New Orleans in particular and urban America in general. Even the parts that don’t quite fit don’t fit in interesting, revealing ways: Blanche’s fixation on the lost glory of the old family home, Belle Reve, gives a curdled twist to America’s peculiar obsession with the myth of Eden, a sense of something not just lost but never attainable: in the reality of this production, if the sisters had had any connection to the Southern plantation, it would have been through ancestors who were slaves on the property. So much for that aspect of the American Dream: is it any wonder that, as the country moved toward the determinedly sunny 1950s, significant slices of the population felt left in the shadows?
Grosse plays Stanley with fitting physicality and male presence, dominating the territory as if it’s a right of nature. And Adele is a revelation as Stella, even-keeled and wry and playful, latching on to the undercurrent of humor that runs through the play and helps make the slam-bang moments emotionally tolerable: for me, she is this production’s bright and shining star. There are at least two ways to play the relationship between Blanche and Stanley – with a sexual tension that both tease out from the beginning, or as a matter of power and domination, in which Stanley’s implied rape of Blanche is a personal terrorism, a sudden and angry act of revenge. Coleman and the actors choose the latter, which makes the play harsher and more brutal. Diedrie’s approach to playing Blanche breaks from the tradition of the delicate Southern flower, playing games and manipulating from a strategy of weakness. She plays Blanche with unquiet desperation – loud, forthright, demanding; a teasing bravado, a Potemkin village of strength and self-reliance disguising a crumble of fear and despair. Something’s cracked behind the lipstick, and when it breaks, all the walls come tumbling down.
The fact and consequences of gayness in society are crucial to Williams’ plays – remember Brick and his longings in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – and along with Blanche’s penchant for underage boys, they drive the plot and set the play’s emotional underpinnings of mendacity, cruelty, and regret. Buried in Blanche’s memory, wheedling and needling and driving her to distraction, are the images of her young husband and his male lover and her own disgust and her sweet man’s suicide: so many lives ruined by fear and denial. It is a response to the moral tightness of the 1940s, and yet even this feels current: sexual otherness is the sin that America still can’t accept. We think we think differently now, and in some ways we do but in others we don’t: in North Carolina, a line’s been drawn at the bathroom door.
And so it explodes, and so it ends. As Blanche is hauled away, meekly relying on the kindness of strangers, Stella and everyone else in the auditorium knows that something’s happened, and it was bad. Stella gulps, and tucks it away, known if not quite acknowledged. Because life goes on, and you play the hand you’re dealt, and you make the best of it. So goodbye, Blanche. The insane asylum this time. The fire, perhaps, next.
Nineteen-forties, meet the twenty-tens. Skin, at least from one angle, is about gradualism, the long view, the tortoise eventually winning the race. Desire is about disillusionment and lies, what happens when the dream snaps and you snap with it. Even when things are better, they can also be worse. Make America great again? Be careful what you wish for. You just might.
- The Skin of Our Teeth continues through June 12 at Artists Rep. Ticket and schedule information here.
- A Streetcar Named Desire continues through June 19 at Portland Center Stage. Ticket and schedule information here.