Stephen F. Austin State University

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Wilder play challenges students with large-scale production, complex characters

April 20, 2017 - Robbie Goodrich
NACOGDOCHES, Texas - Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Skin of Our Teeth" provides a study in "how we move forward through the problems of life with optimism and courage," according to Jack Heifner, playwright-in-residence at Stephen F. Austin State University.

The SFA School of Theatre's cast and production team for Wilder's "funny, touching, sensible and absurd" play is learning that very lesson. From summoning the courage to develop multi-faceted characters to hanging a record number of lights in W.M. Turner Auditorium, everyone involved with "The Skin of Our Teeth" is beginning to understand Wilder's vision as the play comes to life.

The play's dramaturg, Marie Phillips, a junior theatre student from Lewisville, explains that Wilder wanted audience members to "see that there is a duality to humanity; we are both grand and faulty. We shall achieve, struggle, overcome and repeat." That universal theme is evident both on stage and behind the scenes as students prepare for this large-scale production that features a 20-member cast, extensive scenery and multiple costumes and props, according to Heifner, the play's director.

Maggie Strain, theatre education major from Port Aransas, describes her character of Sabina and Wilder's play as both having "tremendous depth." The maid to the Antrobus family, Sabina cycles between the different roles of unobliging family maid, temptress, and dedicated war follower and then eventually back to the role of maid, Strain said.

"Many if not all of the roles I have played throughout my career have been comedic characters," Strain said. "This isn't to say that Sabina isn't funny from time to time, because I find great humor in her character. But she is so much more than that. For the first time I find myself being able to work on monologues that break my heart to deliver, and I have had to muster a new type of courage for seductive scenes."

Between the play's three acts, each character undergoes "colossal growth and change," Strain said. The show is a play within a play, and the actors are playing both characters in the production and characters putting on the production.

"I have never had to play a character that is in such constant flux, and yet, is always the same," she said. "To add to the complexity, not only am I playing Sabina, but often times I play the actress playing Sabina, Miss Somerset, who repeatedly stops the play in an effort to get what she wants."

Sunnyvale junior Maddie Collins is stage managing the play, which she describes as "by far, the biggest show I have ever worked on." It's her job to communicate the director's notes to designers, as well as act as a liaison between the director and actors, making sure everything runs smoothly and is organized.

"There are a lot of moving parts in this show, and it has been full of new experiences," Collins said. "This show has put more pressure on me than ever to stay organized and get things done.

"Along with learning new things myself, I have two assistant stage managers who are learning so they can manage Mainstage plays in the future," she said. "By teaching and explaining things to them, I am learning more about how to delegate and work closely with other people. Because 'The Skin of Our Teeth' is such a big show, it has been difficult keeping everything organized. It has challenged me to be proactive about the possible problems that could arise, as well as problem solve on the spot."

Hutto senior Brittney Tennis is an assistant to guest lighting designer Luis Ramirez. Tennis answers inventory questions, updates changes to the light plot, and acts as the liaison between Ramirez and the play's lighting team. It's different from her previous duties as a production intern at The Long Center in Austin and as a master electrician for the Georgetown Palace Theatre in Georgetown where she was responsible for hanging, circuiting and focusing lights, and in charge of crew calls.

"I am more involved with the production side and helping the director's vision come alive onstage," Tennis said. "One the of the challenges that this play presents is the fact that we have 195 lights hanging in the air right now. We have never had this many lights hanging in Turner Auditorium, and it has been a new experience for all of us involved."

Strain describes "The Skin of Our Teeth" as "one of those plays where knowing the history and context in which it was written gives it all the more meaning." A product of its time, the play was completed two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Phillips, the dramaturg, has given the play "tremendous meaning and has shown me the importance of a play's origins," Strain said.

"The messages and themes in this play are so beautiful and powerful it brings me to tears nearly every day in rehearsal," Strain said. "It isn't often a play has such a profound effect on me. This play is about starting over; it's about family, loss, courage, love, forgiveness in the face of hate, feminism and war. And it's about us; it's a play about the human race."

"Thornton Wilder really wanted the audience to see and understand that even though disastrous things are happening in the world," Tennis said, "we as humans will always find a way to survive and keep on going."

The play is appropriate for anyone and all ages, Heifner said, but the subject matter may not interest someone younger than a teenager. He suggests the play would be rated PG13. There is no offensive language.

"The Skin of Our Teeth" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, April 25 through 29, in W.M. Turner Auditorium in the Griffith Fine Arts Building on the SFA campus. Single tickets are $15 for adult, $10 for senior and $7.50 for student/youth. For tickets or more information, call the SFA Fine Arts Box Office at (936) 468-6407 or visit http://www.theatre.sfasu.edu/.