It’s 6 p.m. in Excelsior, N.J., and desperation is mounting in one of its suburban homes. An ice age is rapidly worsening outside, and the man of the house is late returning from the office. Will he bring provisions? How will the family keep from freezing and starving?
As his maid fretfully spells out the situation, the actress playing her suddenly drops character to announce that she understands not a word of what’s going on.
This moment early in “The Skin of Our Teeth” lets the audience know that it’s OK to be bewildered. Pause for a moment; let yourself laugh. Having thus recalibrated the audience’s expectations, the play’s author, Thornton Wilder, proceeds with an amusing, time-jumbled allegory about humankind’s resilience.
Too rarely performed nowadays, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1942 script by the “Our Town” author is part of the summer repertory at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon.
With the U.S. not quite a year into World War II, Wilder piled catastrophes atop one another: ice age, Noah’s flood and a great war. At the center of it all he put a typical American family embodying dueling impulses: the optimism and unity that have ensured our survival so far, versus a contentiousness sure to deliver never-ending strife.
Director Ellen Geer and a company of 20 have a grand time with all of this — perhaps too grand, as their exaggerated hilarity sometimes undercuts the gravity of what’s going on. Still, the material delivers chills of recognition as it wraps in environmental calamity, a refugee crisis, mass violence, political and social division, arrogant exceptionalism, smear politics, a presidential sex scandal and more.
Although minimally furnished, the Theatricum’s outdoor stage comes alive in small details: puppets that cleverly depict the household’s pet dinosaur and mammoth or a furry, Flintstones-era fur coat worn by the father.
As played by Mark Lewis, the father is pompous and patriarchal, yet tender-hearted and protective. Melora Marshall, as the stuffy, pinched-voiced mother, might pretend to be an obedient second-in-command, but time and again she’s the one with the fortitude to keep the family going. As the hired help, Willow Geer begins as a three-dimensional cartoon of sexy-maid and ’40s pinup poses, a sensualist who seems not much use in a crisis, but she turns out to embody the good times that inspire humankind to keep struggling along.
Ah, yes, it takes all kinds to help us get by, if only by the skin of our teeth.
When: In repertory various Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays; ends Sept. 29
Info: (310) 455-3723, theatricum.com
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes