First Stage Young Company sinks its teeth into an American classic

It takes little more than a minute to herald that we are about to be taken on a strange and, perhaps, wonderful journey

When the always magnetic Jennie Babisch climbs onto the stage, tweed jacket and tie, and grabs a microphone, she commands our attention.

“The management takes pleasure in bringing to you —  the news of the world : Freeport, Long Island.  The sun rose this morning at 6:32 a.m. This gratifying  event was first reported by  Mrs. Dorothy Stetson of Freeport, Long Island, who promptly telephoned the Mayor. The Society for Affirming  the End of the World at once went into a special session and postponed the arrival of that event for twenty- four hours. All honor to Mrs. Stetson for her public spirit.
“Milwaukee, the theater where you are in which this play is playing.
A number of lost objects were collected, as usual. Among these objects found today was a wedding ring, inscribed : To Eva from Adam. Genesis 2-18. The ring will be restored to the owner or owners, if  their credentials are satisfactory.”

Ms. Babisch leaves the stage and we are off and running with Thornton Wilder’s classic “The Skin of OUr Teeth,” staged at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center by the Young Company of First Stage.

This is a difficult play for actors and directors and difficult for an audience to get its arms around. There have been volumes written by academics about the play but it is probably best left to Wilder, who was born in Madison and won three Pulitzer Prizes – one for this play – to best explain what it’s about in his “Story of the Play” which appears just before the play opens.

“Here is a comedy about George Antrobus, his wife and two children and their general utility maid, Lily Sabina, all of Excelsior, New Jersey. George Antrobus is John Doe or George Spelvin or you— the average American at grips with a destiny, sometimes sour, sometimes sweet. The Antrobuses have survived fire, flood, pestilence, the seven-year locusts, the ice age, the black pox and the double feature, a dozen wars and as  many depressions. They run many a gamut, are as durable as radiators, and look upon the future with a disarming optimism. Alternately bewitched, befuddled  and becalmed, they are the stuff of which heroes are
buffoons. They are true offspring of Adain and Eve, victims of all the ills that flesh is  heir to. They have survived a thousand calamities by
the skin of their teeth. Here is a tribute to their indestructibility.”

When a young company of actors, most high school aged, stage a play as difficult as this one, it is not unusual to find a varied degree of ability. Some of the kids are born to the stage, others have trouble even finding it.

Not so with the young company which is guided by Matt Daniels and John Maclay who is the director of the Young Company. From the leads to the smaller parts, this was a display of actors who had obviously worked hard and deep to grasp hold of this convoluted display.

Nobody on that stage seemed lost or uncertain. Every movement, every line, every action was precise and was in service to the story. Wilder called it a comedy and this cast was on top of both the delivery and the timing of the comedic moments. But it also caught the dramatic and meaningful subtleties with great perception,.

Wilder’s play is full of biblical reference and parallel and the Young Company was adept in drawing the lines without falling into the sometimes ponderous styles that sometimes accompany stories like this.

This play has a tendency to run in spurts that can make it even more difficult to understand but director Joshua Pohja keeps the pace even and smooth.

The First Stage Young Company deserves serious attention in the world of Milwaukee theater. Many of these young people are going to be the actors we are watching in the next few decades. Watching them in action imbues me with confidence in the future.

“The Skin of Our Teeth” runs through December 17 at First Stage. Tickets are available.

The Ensemble: Zora Allison, Sylvie Arnold, Jennie BabischElliott Brotherhood, Luke Brotherhood, Megan Grizzle, Mary Jensik, Bree Kazinski, Kate Lepianka, Chantae Miller, Mathilde Prosen-Oldani, Emmy Repetti, Kayla Salter, Megan Watson.

Production credits: Director, Joshua Pohja, Costume Designer, Jaclyn Bjornson; Lighting Designer, Marisa Abbott; Sound Designer, Erin Page; Stage Manager Lauren Gingold; Assistant Stage Manager, Robert Torres.

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