On 1941, playwright Thornton Wilder conceived of a eons-spanning play that would follow one family from the Ice Age through to Armageddon. After all, the play was written in the shadow of the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into World War II, and the concept of mankind coming to an end felt palpable. But Wilder’s first version of the play was too heavy for already war-weary audiences. Instead, the author did an about-face, changed the play to a silly farce, and everybody was happy — including those on the Pulitzer Prize committee, who gave Wilder an award in 1943 for the work. Overshadowed by Wilder’s wide-reaching and less silly “Our Town,” this farce gets another look starting tonight for a five-week run at OJAIAct.
Director Richard Kuhlman, last seen directing “The Provoked Wife” for Transport Theatre in Ojai, says he’s known the play since high school and has wanted to produce it.
“The play treats everyone in a real humorous, clownish way, but it never loses sight of humankind and how they get along, and there’s jealousy, arguments and relationships and all that stuff,” he says.
The Antrobus family suffers through an era of desperation in each of the play’s three acts: the Ice Age, biblical figure Noah’s flood and Armageddon … all from their house in New Jersey. The atomic bomb had not been dropped, so Wilder’s 1941 conception of the end of the world is more like endless war. There’s plenty of humor within the construct of the play, with a “stage manager” who steps in to comment on the stupid nature of the production.
“It’s very theatrical, so I really tried to play it up,” Mr. Kuhlman says. “I’ve taken the absurdity in every direction I can. … Wilder mentions a wall of ice, so I’ve added a “Wall of Ice” character who walks on. I’ve visualized a lot of what he mentions in the script.”
To assemble the cast, Mr. Kuhlman got Ron Feltner, last seen in “The Provoked Wife,” to play the father. The maid is played by Zuzka Sabata, new to Ojai, fresh from the Czech Republic. “She just wandered in one day to the office,” says Mr. Kuhlman, who turned around and asked Ms. Sabata to audition. Laura Ring plays the mother. Tom Thomas — who also has never been in a play before, but had a perfect radio voice — plays the announcer.
There had been a few reshuffles in the cast earlier on, making Mr. Kuhlman worry that the title of the play would come true, with the production just squeaking by. But everything’s settled now, he says.
Mr. Kuhlman says the play, despite its age, still feels contemporary. All the talk about the Ice Age mirrors our worries about global warming. The dinosaurs and the wooly mammoth who appear — how they appear is one of the jokes — feel to Mr. Kuhlman like our society’s relationship to the homeless. “The people who survive and those who don’t feel like the haves and have-nots,” he says. “There’s also a lot of talk about political scandal, but you can always find that. (Audiences) want things delivered faster, but Wilder chose things that still appeal to us as humans.”
‘The Skin of Our Teeth’
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays tonight through Feb. 24
Where: Ojai Art Center Theater, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai
Information: 640-8797 or www.ojaiact.org