Q&A with Tony-nominated actress Gabby Beans
Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Skin of Our Teeth” has been baffling and delighting audiences since it opened on Broadway in November of 1942, in a production directed by Elia Kazan and starring Tallulah Bankhead, Frederic March, Florence Eldridge and a very young Montgomery Clift. The play was subsequently revived on Broadway in 1955; in a 1983 Old Globe Theatre production in San Diego directed by Jack O’Brien (which aired on the PBS series American Playhouse); a 1998 Shakespeare in the Park production and a 2017 Theatre for a New Audience production.
Now Lileana Blain-Cruz has directed an inventive, dazzling revival of the play for Lincoln Center Theater. It has been nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design, Best Sound Design, Best Set Design – and Best Lead Actress. That actress is the wonderfully-named Gabby Beans, who is a revelation as Sabina, the housemaid to the family at the center of Wilder’s play, the Antrobuses. (Was Wilder riffing on the Greek anthropos, or “man?”) Watching Ms. Beans’ fearless performance is analogous to watching a high-wire artist – there’s the same sense of danger and daring. You’re mesmerized by her, while at the same time terrified she’s going to lose her balance and fall. That she never does is a testament to her energy, intelligence and commitment.
Beans grew up a military brat, moving from place to place through elementary, grammar and high school years, finally alighting at Columbia University, where she double-majored in Neuroscience and Drama. From Columbia she went to London to attend LAMDA, returning to New York in 2016. She made her off-Broadway debut in 2019 in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Marys Seacole,” also directed by Ms. Blain-Cruz. In addition, she has appeared Off-Broadway in “Anatomy of a Suicide” and “After the Dark” and regionally in “Girls,” “The Wolves,” “Curse of the Starving Class,” “Tar and Feather,” “Far Away” and “Blue Ridge.”
Beans, who lives in Bushwick, is a charming conversationalist and a persuasive advocate for the advantages of her Brooklyn neighborhood.
Below is that conversation, edited for clarity:
Brooklyn Eagle: Were you already familiar with “The Skin of Our Teeth” before auditioning?
Gabby Beans: I was not. In fact, as embarrassing as it is to admit, I also hadn’t seen or read “Our Town.” I do know that “The Skin of Our Teeth” holds a special place in the American theatrical canon. As, of course, does “Our Town.” But I was new to the material.
BE: What was the audition process like? Had you auditioned for Lincoln Center Theater before.
GB: Yes my Off-Broadway premiere was at Lincoln Center Theater [in “Mary’s Seacole.”] The audition for “The Skin of Our Teeth” was conducted via Zoom. I knew that Sabina was a complex character and the play at first confused me. But that actually helped me because I went into the audition very free and loose. I think my fearlessness stemmed from the fact that I thought I wasn’t going to get the part. Lileana’s production notes clarified my interpretation.
BE: Your monologue, which opens the play, is kind of the interpretive key to understanding the play. Is that the way Lileana directed you to play it?
GB: I think most of that is actually in the play’s dialogue. There were so many ways to approach that monologue. In fact, on YouTube I watched Vivien Leigh’s performance of the monologue and she did it completely differently than me. [Leigh played Sabina in Laurence Olivier’s 1945 production of the play in London.] She was more monotone and matter-of-fact. Instead Lileana’s vision for the monologue was lush and explosive. Lileana directed me to speak really quickly and it’s such dense material that I worried that the audience wouldn’t be able to keep up. But she said it was important for the audience to come to me.
BE: Mrs. Antrobus has a line of dialogue in the first act that has always confused me: “Oh Sabina I know you. When Mr. Antrobus raped you home from your Sabine hills, he did it to insult me. You were the new wife, weren’t you?” Can you explain?
GB: Sabina and Mrs Antrobus are different kinds of archetypes. They represent two aspects of femininity: the seductress and the rock-solid wife. But Wilder went deeper, into myth: the Sabine women and the origin story of Rome. As an actor approaching this play it’s important not to lose sight of the allegorical aspects of it.
BE: What were some of the modernizing touches Branden Jacobs-Jenkins brought to the play?
GB: Most of the dialogue is straight from Wilder. Branden’s additions to the play were to make the language more appropriate for Black actors. These changes were made so that the language we use was aligned with our lived experiences as Black people. An example of Branden’s modernizing touches is when Sabina in her opening monologue is lamenting “Oh – why can’t we have plays like we used to have “Peg of My Heart” and “Smilin’ Thru” and T”he Bat.” Branden updated the plays to “South Pacific” and “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” and “Bootycandy!”
BE: Did you come from an artistic family? Were your parents supportive of your career choice?
GB: Well, it depends which parent we’re talking about. My mother was a physician and she always hoped I’d follow in her footsteps. My father was in the military for 35 years, but he was more open to my choosing acting as a career path. Both my parents saw how, from a very young age, I was performing, re-enacting scenes from my favorite movies. At Columbia, I was pre-med, studying neuroscience, but I took some Drama Department classes and appeared in a few plays and I was hooked. Today my mother is my on-board with my choice, but I think there’s still a part of her that wishes I’d become a doctor!
BE: Who are some actresses you admire – and why?
GB: My biggest heroes are actors who are also in control of the their own work. People like Issa Rae [an American actress who first gained attention for her writing, producing and starring in the YouTube web series “Awkward Black Girl.”] and Michaela Coel [a British actress, screenwriter and director best known in the States for the BBC One/HBO comedy-drama series “I May Destroy You”] And then, because I went to drama school in London there is a trio of English actresses I greatly admire: Denise Gough, Fiona Shaw and Harriet Walter. Oh, and of course, Viola Davis!
BE: Finally, why did you choose to live in Brooklyn, more specifically Bushwick?
GB: I moved to Bushwick in 2016, so I’m definitely kind of a latecomer to the neighborhood. I have a rent-stabilized apartment which I think I’ll never leave. What made me want to move to Bushwick is the feeling of artistic creativity that thrives in abundance there. There’s great jazz at Ornithology, a club on Suydam Street; a friend of mine who’s a jazz musician frequently plays there. And there’s the Bushwick Starr, on Eldert Street, for theater. Plus a thriving restaurant scene; some of my favorites are Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen, Mood Ring, Elsewhere and Nowadays. Plus a lovely park, Highland Park, just over the border in Queens. Further afield, I like going to Fort Greene Park and, of course, the Brooklyn Museum.
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