This year marks the 100th birthday of Dylan Thomas and the 60th anniversary of BBC Radio's broadcast of Under Milk Wood. Considered the Welsh writer's greatest work, the radio play was completed just before his death in November 1953; it was later adapted for the stage. (A film version, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was produced in 1972.)
The Parish Players have mounted a full production of Under Milk Wood, directed by Sophie Wood, at Thetford Hill's Eclipse Grange.
Wood uses a talented cast of 12 to good advantage as they perform upward of 60 roles, with the help of musician and sound-effects man Duncan Nichols. Wood said she chose the play because she loves the lyrical nature of the words — and that it doesn't tell a story per se. "It paints images and peeks us in on people's lives, and stares us up at the sky," as she puts it.
Though Thomas was born in Wales and steeped in its poetry and lore, he spoke no Welsh. Under Milk Wood mixes words from English and Welsh, combining them to make altogether new ones. There is no mistaking their meaning, however. Judging from the laughter that rang through a full house on opening night, the audience caught on quickly.
The play takes place on a single spring day in a small Welsh fishing village, the fictional Llareggub ("bugger all," backward). It begins with dreams and voices of the dead in dawn's ghostly light, continues through the boisterous slog of daily life, then closes as dusk ushers in the bawdy night.
"There are so many layers of reality in this play," Wood says. "Layers of dreams, waking life, fantasy, wish life, secrets, spying and gossiping. It illuminates how much of that there is in our lives." The play gives a moving account, with a liberal dose of hilarity, of the foibles and strengths of dozens of Llareggub's denizens. By the time the play concludes, it has communicated what it is like to feel alive, to be alive.
The minimal set, which Wood designed, uses two-dimensional frames to create outlines of houses and a church huddled together. Lit from behind, the buildings sometimes work like windows where the inhabitants appear in profile, backlit as shadows. One person raises a cup to his lips and drinks. One bows her head in prayer. Another shakes a fist in the air. The set is built on three risers, which allow ample room for movement.
At stage right is a space that resembles a broadcast booth where the narrators, First Voice and Second Voice, stand side by side dressed in 1950s hats and garb — music stands and scripts at the ready. Behind them, Nichols stands at the sound effects and music booth. Throughout the play, the sounds of babies crying and cooing, bathwater sloshing, chickens clucking, mincing steps in high heels, car noises, and more erupt from Nichols' mouth or the array of percussion instruments and other effects at his fingertips. He also plays musical accompaniment.
Off to the side, an "On Air" sign lights up when First Voice gives the silent countdown, and the play begins. The broadcast booth is just a set piece, however — the show is not actually aired. It's an inspired nod to the play's origins as a radio play, and a way to integrate the narrators fully.
Danielle Cohen (First Voice) is one of the two anonymous narrators who alternately introduce and present the action. She speaks softly, the language rolling off her tongue and easing the audience into the story: "It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea." Second Voice Sheila Kaplow lends her huskier, more experienced voice to the narration.
Under Milk Wood is typically performed as a staged reading, without a set. But this production is fully staged and uses physical comedy, from the outsize facial reactions of actors Dan Deneen, Robert O'Leary and Jim Schley to more outlandish antics. Deneen shines as the blind Captain Cat, tapping his way front and center. O'Leary finds as many ways to amuse as he has roles, with or without his tinfoil hat or poisonous plans for his wife. And Deneen and Schley rock the house as the two deceased husbands of Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard. Among innumerable excellent performances here, Barbara Swantak deserves props for the humanity she brings to all her roles, especially her sensual and sublime portrayal of the earthy Polly Garter.
One of the evening's bright spots came from an unexpected corner. Louisa and Sadie Holbrook, both Hanover High School students, are standouts in schoolgirl roles; they perform to the hilt as they chase young men for a kiss. The physical comedy is outstanding, especially that of actor Chico Eastridge, who creates spellbinding vignettes in each of his scenes. Even his flowing beard seems to be a natural attribute of every character he inhabits.
The confident cast gave a strong opening-night performance, which was slightly undercut by uneven timing that slowed down the second act. However, it didn't stop the actors from lifting up the audience on a tide of joie de vivre. As the residents of the little faraway fishing village stir in the dark of a new day, recognition of our own small towns, and our own lives with all their troubles and merriment, reflect back at us.