Wilder and Wilder

Raymond Bobgan ups the temperature of a bizarre classic.

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The Skin of Our Teeth Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue. 216-631-2727 Through April 22
Randy Rollison patents the role of Mr. Antrobus.
Randy Rollison patents the role of Mr. Antrobus.
When Cleveland Public Theatre wrestles the classics, it's invariably in the spirit of darkness and nihilism: Shakespeare imprisoned in a punky madhouse or fiendishly creepy bits of German expressionism to commit suicide to. This makes Raymond Bobgan's profoundly alive staging of Thornton Wilder's valentine to human endurance, The Skin of Our Teeth, a truly amazing anomaly.

Originally directed by Elia Kazan, with a legendary cast that included Tallulah Bankhead, Frederic March, and Montgomery Clift, it opened on Broadway among a plethora of wartime morale boosters, such as Gypsy Rose Lee in Strip for Action and Olsen and Johnson in Sons o' Fun.

While most Broadway shows were seemingly inspired by nothing weightier than the funny papers or a ladies' magazine article, this work took its impetus from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. It's about a family living simultaneously in the present and in the dawn of history, with pet dinosaur and mastodon, and a son with the mark of Cain (renamed Henry).

From its original playbill notes, we sense a tribute to mankind's implacability: "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 made -- heroes and buffoons. They are true offspring of Adam 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 your indestructibility."

Yet history has proved it more than a glorified theatrical war bond. The first work to be presented in occupied Berlin is a fanciful vaudeville of Man as the eternal inventor, with Woman divided between nurturer and hedonist. It took on the aura of a rainbow after a violent storm, signifying a pact that mankind would not only endure but prevail.

To keep it relevant in the age of Clinton, Bobgan has added an extra patina of corruption. He has engulfed Wilder's '40s Norman Rockwell-type family in a scalding ocean of leather, whips, and chains out of Robert Mapplethorpe's oeuvre. Bobgan has developed the fearless instincts of a champion poker player; he makes strange bets and is willing to take losses on the way to the final jackpot.

In casting Karin Randoja as Sabina, the eternal flirt, played in the past to saucy immortality by Bankhead and Vivien Leigh, he deflates the high comic, artificial brilliance of the opening monologue. Randoja is as round and earthbound as one of the tarts that populate Joyce's Nightown. She can no more play sophisticated comedy than can Roseanne, yet she redeems herself in the second act, dressed like a figure out of Toulouse-Lautrec, feigning seduction with a childish innocence.

As Mr. Antrobus, Wilder's Everyman, wheel-inventor, patriarch, glad-hander, fool and saint, warrior and politician, loving husband and philandering heel, Randy Rollison traverses the emotional landscape in a performance that unfolds with effortless majesty. Matching him in intensity as the eternal Little Woman, stuffed in gloves and a pillbox hat, Holly Holsinger throws piercing beams like a lighthouse through a fog.

Amid the decomposed splendor of the half-renovated Gordon Square Theatre, on Oliver Söhngen's set evoking a scarred but indomitable Planet Earth, a brave company keeps alive and fragrant the beautifully arranged verbal flowers and ever-fresh homilies of one of the theater's most charming preachers.

At Ensemble Theatre is A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur. As in many Tennessee Williams plays, it cherishes women who are victims of their own vulnerability. Like Laura waiting for that expected something, a pair of withering-on-the-vine schoolteachers yearn for a passage out of their genteel, shabby existence.

Though full of the sweet poetry and felicitous phrases that made Williams the master of dramatic dialogue, this is basically a chamber piece from a maestro who has depleted himself. Sadly, the motifs are wan retreads from his earlier masterpieces, ranging from Blanche's "Don't hold back with the apes" diatribe from A Streetcar Named Desire to Summer and Smoke's disappointed Miss Alma giving up her illusions and learning to accept the flesh-and-blood realities of a carnal world.

Lucia Colombi directs with her usual delicacy. As Dorthea, the smitten schoolteacher, Dawn Pierce has Carol Burnett's gift for being deliciously gawky yet heartbreakingly sincere. Dorothy Canepari is compact with hausfrau integrity as Bodey, the kindhearted landlady who wants to marry Dorthea off to her rotund brother. Sheila Maloney as the other schoolteacher, who craves gentility as a plant craves the sun, is played with the glorious, flutelike eccentricity of the late Geraldine Page.

Even reheated Williams still makes for a spicy and satisfying gumbo.

A Lovely Day for Creve Coeur, through April 16 at Ensemble Theatre at the Civic, 3130 Mayfield Road, Cleveland Heights. 216-321-2930

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