Thornton Wilder

Published: December 24, 1984

In an appropriate gesture for the holiday season, public television's American Playhouse is offering, tonight at 9 on WNET/13, Thornton Wilder's ''Skin of Our Teeth.'' It is actually a rebroadcast of a production that was transmitted live from the stage of San Diego's Old Globe Theater in January 1983. The play's message of hope for the human race, that we are likely to survive by the skin of our teeth no matter what disasters befall us, assumes a special poignancy on Christmas Eve.

Thornton Wilder, born three years before the turn of this century, was a curious figure in American letters. He was a quiet, scholarly man, said to be one of a handful of Americans who thoroughly digested and understood James Joyce's almost impenetrable ''Finnegan's Wake.'' Yet, Wilder's own works were models of clarity, stripped down to the essences of narrative and theatricality. In ''Our Town,'' a ''stage manager'' appears and, with a few chairs, conjures up an entire generation living in small town. In ''The Skin of Our Teeth,'' the actors are themselves as well as the characters they are depicting, occasionally stepping forward to explain the play wryly to the audience. Both plays, incidentally, won Pulitzer Prizes, as did Wilder's early novel ''The Bridge of San Luis Rey.''

''The Skin of Our Teeth'' revolves around the Antrobus family, George and Maggie and their two children, in addition to their all-purpose maid named Sabina. The time covered represents thousands of years, with each of the three acts featuring a catastrophic threat to human existence: the ice age, the flood and war. Some observers maintain that the play works especially well in times of crisis. The original Broadway production, which starred Frederic March, Florence Eldridge, Talullah Bankhead and a new juvenile maned Montgomery Clift, opened toward the end of 1942 as World War II was raging. One of the more notable revivals, starring Helen Hayes, George Abbott and Mary Martin, came along in 1955 during cold war tensions. And Jack O'Brien, director of this San Diego production, has declared that the possibilities of nuclear confrontations are not just ''figments of our imaginations, they are a presence in our lives.''

In any event, no matter what period of history they are struggling through, the Antrobuses are as American as, well, any of the good citizens of ''Our Town.'' Mr. Antrobus works hard at inventing such essentials of life as the alphabet, mathematics and brewed beer. Mrs. Antrobus keeps the house going, protecting her brood with a ferocity not immediately detectable in her surface motherly manners. And Sabina, eternally bored and eternally trying to get Mr. Antrobus to leave his wife, is the sultry siren and the would-be mistress, as much a part of the family picture as any of the Antrobuses.

Some of the Wilder techniques, not to mention the jokes, are a bit hokey now, having been absorbed and exploited to death by succeeding waves of avant-garde movements. But a few are still remarkably effective. The third act, for instance, the one opening after a miltary holocaust, is quickly thrown into a dither when it is announced that several of the actors have been hospitalized with ptomaine poisoning from some food delivered backstage. Volunteers are found and they are given a few moments of rehearsal to play the voices of the planets that later will pass over the heads of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus. The planets device is made to look silly, and the rehearsal readings of passages from Aristotle, Spinoza and the Bible are downright funny. Yet, when the scene itself finally unfolds at the end of the play, all the ingredients come together for an unexpectedly moving finale. It is hardly an accident, by the way, that among the books not destroyed in the war, the first to be picked up by Mr. Antrobus is ''Finnegan's Wake.''

This production, produced for the stage by Thomas Hall and for television by Sam Paul, gets better as it moves along. Some of the initial machinery creaks and some of the symbolism - the Antrobus son Harry, for instance, becoming the Cain who slew his brother - is trying. But the basic conception holds and the cast is solid. Sada Thompson and Blair Brown are especially successful as Mrs. Antrobus and Sabina, their rivalry evolving into a curious relationship of mutual need. Also outstanding are Harold Gould as Mr. Antrobus, Jeffrey Combs and Monique Fowler as the Antrobus children, and Rue McClanahan as the Fortune Teller in Atlantic City. The Antrobuses remain the quintessential American family, silly and heroic, ridiculous and noble, somehow coming through with their decent values and their books of wisdom intact. Mr. Wilder, who died in 1975, was a bachelor who lived a rather reclusive life with his sister.