In The Skin of Our Teeth, James Vincent Meredith plays Mr. George Antrobus, the inventor of the wheel and the alphabet, as well as the husband of Maggie Antrobus and the father of two children: Gladys and Henry. Those fast facts alone would seem to provide more than enough material for Meredith to build a performance. But this week the actor told me that constructing his character in Skin wasn’t exactly straightforward.
“I’m a linear, point-A-to-point-B-to-Point-C person in terms of research,” Meredith said. “But with this play I had to throw my usual method out the window. I share the stage with a dinosaur and a mammoth, for goodness sake.”
Meredith said he was aided in his work by the visuals board that Lileana Blain-Cruz, the production’s director, had created in the rehearsal room. “It gave us actors a lot of a lot of information about what was going on in each of the periods” – one corresponding to each of the play’s three acts – “suggested by the production: the middle of the 20th century; Atlantic City in 1922; America during the Civil War.”
Meredith, who grew up in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, and who has been part of that city’s professional theater community since his first union-card production there in 2000, credits Blain-Cruz with much more than just the visuals she had placed in the rehearsal room.
“Lileana establishes a great spirit while we’re working,” Meredith revealed. “If rehearsal started at 11 we only got to the script at noon. Until then, we were busy warming up and getting to know more about each other. Lileana plays music at the beginning of our workday. We’re in a circle. We stretch. There’s a lot of joy in the room, but we’re free to bring in other emotions.”
A cohesive family feeling has been important to Meredith since he started acting. “When I was in seventh and eighth grade I had a great drama teacher, Mrs. Anne Lefkovitz. She let me know how good an actor I could be if I only gave to acting the same attention as I gave to cutting up in class.” Lefkovitz urged Meredith to audition for his first show: A Raisin in the Sun, at Northwestern University. (It was in that Lorraine Hansberry play that Meredith also had his first union-card professional job.)
“I loved being in Raisin as a kid,” Meredith remembered. “But I felt an unspeakable grief at the end of the run. I realized that when you are acting you create this family away from your regular family. You spend several hours a day with each other, six days a week. And then it’s over. I had a really hard time with that.” Luckily, Meredith has had many theater families since childhood. He has done classic plays at Chicago Shakespeare Theater; The Crucible and Clybourne Park at Steppenwolf, where he’s been a company member since 2007; and three years on tour and on Broadway with The Book of Mormon. He also did the Tracy Letts play Superior Donuts on Broadway.
It was during one of those previous Broadway engagements that Meredith and his wife used to pass by Lincoln Center while walking from Times Square to the Upper West Side, where Meredith was staying. “We would see Lincoln Center Theater, and I would say to my wife: ‘Man, if I could get a gig there, that would be the spot.”
Now that he’s here, Meredith has been enjoying the experience enormously. But the family dynamics of the Antrobuses, in The Skin of Our Teeth, are not always as bonding as the group dynamics of rehearsal or performance. “As an inventor,” Meredith said, “Mr. Antrobus is always trying to find ways to move humanity forward.” But, the actor added, “there are times in each act when he loses hope. His son has a tendency to murder people with stones. That gives him much pain, much shame, much grief.”
Things can get complicated for Mr. Antrobus. “He is someone,” Meredith said, “who has appetite. People use that term about historic figures and they say about their private behavior: ‘Oh well, they just had an appetite and they had to satisfy their needs in the course of solving an issue.’ That doesn’t excuse it. But it does help us to understand the person. Understanding Mr. Antrobus’s appetites helps me to understand him. He has a thirst for stimulation. He doesn’t worry about the nuts-and-bolts of things. His vision isn’t short-term. He has unending curiosity.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com