The voices carry in Under Milk Wood
Every time I re-encounter him, I'm surprised and thrilled by Dylan Thomas's writing – the inventiveness, effusiveness, humor, insight, sheer appetite and joy, as well as his intoxication with words. Under Milk Wood, described by the author as a play for voices, creates a day in the life of a teeny backwater of a Welsh coastal town called Llareggub ("buggerall" spelled backward): the inhabitants' fantasies and memories; the ghosts of husbands abused and lovers lost; stories of love misplaced, sustaining faith and rage unsated; the dreamlike poetry of the slow procession from dawn to dusk to night. "Time passes," someone instructs us at the beginning. "Listen. Time passes." And then, "Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colors and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams."
You meet an astonishing cast of characters, from the gentle and somewhat simple Reverend Eli Jenkins to Mr. Pugh, who wants to poison his cold, critical wife, to Mog Edwards and his beloved Myfanwy Price, who communicate only in yearning letters, although they live in the same town. "Throw away your little bedsocks and your Welsh wool knitted jacket," Mog Edwards writes. "I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster, I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast." There's also Mrs. Ogmore Pritchard, who does nothing but clean, dust and put things in order, and sleeps at night between the resentful ghosts of her two deceased husbands, and Polly Garter, who has conceived many children by many different men while continuing to mourn her one true love, Little Willie Wee.
The best way for a director to deal with this glorious tumble of words is to get out of the way, which is exactly what Ed Baierlein has done. His staging is clean and skillful, with neat lettered signs giving us the time of day (Afternoon. Dusk), and just enough action to keep things moving, as when the actors become children in the schoolyard and perform a ribboned mayday dance while chanting, "Johnnie Crack and Flossie Snail/ Kept their baby in a milking pail." This is a production that never insults your intelligence and assumes that even if some of the words and phrases are dated or plain made up by Thomas, you'll get the music, rhythm and flow of the thing. Eight actors play all the characters, provide narrative and sometimes serve as chorus, but this feels less like reader's theater or straightforward storytelling than a kind of sustained, melodic musing: Though each part is played with energy, sometimes even a bit of craziness, the overall effect is muted and wistful. There's only one drawback: Sometimes the dialogue moves too swiftly and you lose some of the words.
Among the standout performances are Baierlein as blind Captain Cat, remembering the friends he lost to the sea; Sallie Diamond, gravel-voiced and stern as Mrs. Ogmore Pritchard, melting into tenderness as Myfanwy Price, and morphing into a singing, dancing little girl in the schoolyard scene. Lisa Mumpton is moving as Rosie Probert, the woman Captain Cat shared with many of his mates and never stopped loving, even long after her death; Stephen R. Kramer almost twists himself inside out with futile malice as the would-be murderer, Mr. Pugh; and Owen C. Niland brings vitality to several roles. Leroy Leonard is funny and versatile, and particularly sweet as Eli Jenkins.
Under Milk Wood bears comparison with those other tone poems of country life, Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology and Thornton Wilder's Our Town, all of them pieces deepened and sanctified by the presence of the dead. But there's a wild sense of comedy here, and an unfettered poetic imagination — harnessed, nonetheless, to the mundane details of daily life —that could never be matched elsewhere.
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