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James Vincent Meredith and Roslyn Ruff on starring in Lincoln Center Theater's epic mounting of The Skin of Our Teeth
Things don't look good for the human race. Multiple crises threaten its existence: climate change, war, scarcity of food and fuel, and mass displacement. How are we supposed to solve these problems when we can't even resolve the conflicts tearing our own families apart?
It's a grim reality, but James Vincent Meredith and Roslyn Ruff are thrilled to be facing it—on stage at least. They're playing Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, the married couple at the core of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, which is getting an eerily timely revival at Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont Theater. A Pulitzer Prize-winning, era-spanning, fantastical dramedy about humankind battling the elements and each other, it follows a single nuclear family through 5,000 years of marriage and history. Despite premiering on Broadway 80 years ago, it remains breathtakingly relevant.
"So many people have come and seen the show and said, 'Wow, you guys really did some great rewrites!'" says Meredith, laughing. "And I'm like, 'Not nearly as much as you might think.'" Director Lileana Blain-Cruz did enlist her longtime friend and frequent collaborator, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, to tinker with Wilder's text with permission from the late dramatist's estate. But aside from updating and diversifying some cultural references (a Longfellow poem has been replaced with one by Maya Angelou; the philosophy of Aristotle has been swapped for the wisdom of bell hooks), the play is true to Wilder's creation.
Both actors are surprised by how deeply they've connected with a work that many assume is, in Meredith's words, "an old chestnut"—traditional, comfortable and white by default. Before being cast by Blain-Cruz, neither had appeared in a Wilder play; Ruff had never even seen one. "Of course, I know who Thornton Wilder is, but I didn't know his brand of theatre," says Ruff. "I didn't know that it would be right up my alley." An Obie-winning, classically trained performer who's appeared in a lot of Shakespeare as well as contemporary works by Suzan-Lori Parks, August Wilson and Jackie Sibblies Drury, Ruff took a chance on The Skin of Our Teeth "because I've collaborated with Lileana in the past. She is a dear friend; I trust her wholeheartedly."
Meanwhile, Meredith's only prior exposure to Wilder "was seeing Our Town multiple times… smelling that bacon," referring to director David Cromer's heralded 2009 Off-Broadway production, which featured a working kitchen.
While Wilder was a prolific writer, he only penned a handful of full-length theatre works, including The Skin of Our Teeth, which was last seen on Broadway briefly in 1975 a few months before he died. Those who only know Wilder through Our Town, his most frequently produced play, will find a prior visit to Grover's Corners doesn't prepare you for the trip to Excelsior, New Jersey, the fictional suburb where Act I of The Skin of Our Teeth takes place. There, Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus live in the shadow of an encroaching glacier with their anxious daughter Gladys (Paige Gilbert) and homicidal son Henry (Julian Robertson), their servant Sabina (a scene-stealing Gabby Beans) and their pet dinosaur (a jaw-dropping puppet designed by James Ortiz). Act II takes place in Atlantic City and features a giant, amusement park-style slide courtesy of scenic designer Adam Rigg.
This play of grand ideas is certainly being mounted on a grand scale with a multiracial cast of 28. "I did All the Way on Broadway and that was a huge cast and had a lot of moving parts, but still nothing like this," marvels Ruff. After two years of pandemic-imposed exile from in-person theatre, she admits it's been hard returning to the intimacy stage acting requires. "We can be a very touchy-feely group of people," Ruff says. "It kind of shook me up a little bit at first, because I can count the number of times on these two hands that I ventured into Manhattan over the last two years. I had to do a lot of reprogramming coming out of my hole in Brooklyn to just kind of open myself up."
Meredith agrees. "This is my first time on a stage since COVID. I felt like a fish out of water, I have to say, through a good portion of rehearsals." Despite a long career that includes shows on Broadway and beyond, he found that Blain-Cruz's process kept him on his toes. "She is really a force of nature, and I don't say that in a trite way," he says. "I don't think I've ever been in a room where we might have a call for noon, and we don't really sit down to work until 1 p.m. because we're spending time checking in with each other, warming up our bodies, sitting around in a circle, really just kind of opening ourselves to the possibilities of that space and of that day's discoveries, together. I found that kind of wild initially, but once I bought into it, I looked forward to it. I miss it now."
As you might imagine, Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus have assorted marital woes over the centuries, but they're bonded by their shared hope for the future. Acting together for the first time, Meredith and Ruff are more like newlyweds than old marrieds but, like the characters they play, they complement one another. "When a rehearsal's going, I want to be as close to off-book as possible," Meredith says. "I feel like I have to hurry up to get to that point. Ros came in and she would have the script—"
"All the time, James!" interrupts Ruff with a raucous laugh:
"But when the time came and she dropped the script, that was that," says Meredith. "There's no need to rush. When you get there, you will get there. That has kind of given me a chance to give myself grace."
"I envy that in a lot of actors, being able to come in off-book and ready to play," Ruff says. "James just gets this twinkle in his eye. From the moment he opened his mouth on the first day, sitting around the table—my god, he was Mr. Antrobus. Lileana is really a genius in terms of who she wants and who she gathers in the room and puts together, and she knew exactly what she was doing because it was like I fell in love."
"If the audience doesn't buy that these two love each other, that they are partners for life, then a lot of other stuff becomes harder to handle," Meredith adds. The Skin of Our Teeth does ask theatregoers to process "a lot of other stuff," from dinosaurs to floods to murder. But what's survival without love? Ruff and Meredith's palpable affection as Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus gives us hope for the human race.
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: James Vincent Meredith and Roslyn Ruff in The Skin of Our Teeth at Lincoln Center Theater. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.