Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. Directed by David Anderson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Heís all cucumber and hooves."
The Men of Milk Wood: Lappin, Luxon and Pugh
Twenty-four hours in the small, coastal Welsh town of Llareggub: time enough for more than 60 different characters to present themselves, their beliefs and their feelings to an audience of indifferent observers who lose their individual identities in the poetic and often hilarious utterings of these on-stage individuals. Poet Dylan Thomas includes us, the indifferent audience, in his vast cast of characters and we become one with them, join in the small emotional outbursts and the large loves, live in that town whose name spelled backward reads "bugger all." We return to our cars, to our homes and hours later we recall something we heard in this play, we glow with it, we are part of it.
That is the nature of Thomasí writing. He makes accessible the most difficult of inner voices. This play haunts its participants and the act of buying the ticket and sitting in the tent on a high farmerís hill with the ghostly sound of trains in the not so distant valley beyond, as happens in Chatham, New York where Walking the Dog Theater is presenting its version of this play at PS21, is enough to make you forever one with Thomasí quaint village. A cast of seven actors plays the 63 roles and, for the most part, makes us believe that they actually embody them all.
Director David Anderson has a way with lyricism. He knows how to give it an edge, but withhold its baser, more dangerous aspects leaving us safe but excited. He can clearly move a small group of players into the bright circle of the crowd without providing so much heat that the light distorts that necessary individuality within the crowd. I know this may not be clear in the reading, but in the watching and the waiting for a voice to emerge from the crowd it will be. You just have to see it to understand it.
His actors are the real thing. They resonate reality. Best among them is Ben Luxon, the first voice, the narrator of the villageís day and many of the broadest characters in that town. Mog Edwards, a romantic fellow with a passionate yen for one woman to whom he writes several times a day, will never bring that passion to power. In Luxonís lush voice and body Mog lives for moments at a time and his image never leaves the stage even when Luxon has moved on to other characters: Mr. Ogmore, or Captain Cat. Luxon sets the tone for whatever follows and he does it brilliantly.
As the object of his undying, and untried, affection - Myfanwy Price - there is the lovely Susan Willerman who can be virgin or slut at a momentís notice and make each as real and as warm and inviting as the other. She blends these qualities in the children she plays providing inimitable clues to the future of the young people in Llareggub.
Her exact opposite is Fern Sloan playing Mrs. Pugh, whose stern, nearly sinister manner inspires dreams of her murder in her long-suffering husband. In her other major role, Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard she is a sexual predator with two husbands to manhandle. Sloan somehow manages to make both of these women endearing and fascinating, each a person one could love.
Aryeh Lappin takes over the personae of his characters. He is nearly transcendent as Organ Morgan, a young husband so transformed by the music he loves that his wife suffers by comparison - or would if he would take notice of her. His Sinbad Sailor, holding up his end of the bar at the local pub, is charming and funny and sincerely unsatisfied with life.
Benedicta Bertau, as we know from other plays done by this company, can be seductive and siren-like, can be pure and simple, can be lost in a character so completely that we forget she is playing such a person. In this show she gets to display all of her various possibilities, sometimes with a flash change from one to another. That is key to making this play work, that ability to shift and be recognizable and that she does brilliantly. Most of her characters are married women, but not all and when she is a single girl, she a very singular one.
Ashley Mayne is both the very common Polly Garter and the most uncommon Lily Smalls who dreams of love and a rich fantasy life. Mayneís transitions are sometimes not as clean and clear as Bertauís always seem to be, but that may be in their writing. The younger women Mayne plays bear some similarities to one another. It is mostly in the dreaming sequences that her characters meld into one. Her voice is her principal instrument and she does use it to develop all of her different characters.
Ted Pugh, the actor and not a character named Mr. Pugh whom he also plays, is marvelous in that particular role, fantasizing about poisons every time he approaches his wife. He is equally enthralling as Reverent Eli Jenkins, the sexually demanded Mr. Pritchard and all of his other incarnations.
The set designed by Katie Jean Wall is simple and understandably practical. The original music by Jonathan Talbott is evocative and lovely. The lighting by Deena Pewtherer is effective providing a sense of dream and a sense of reality when needed.
The show plays for a solid, unbroken ninety-three minutes and by the end of it you are a member of the village community and you know more about your neighbors than you ever hoped to know. A small-town experience for us in our own small towns in the Berkshire region is almost too much to manage and in the morning mists, the following day, youíre just not too sure whoíll be waiting to deliver that next poetic monologue. Be careful. It could be you.
The women of Milk Wood: Willerman, Sloan, Bertau and Mayne
Pugh and Sloan as Pugh and Pugh
Under Milk Wood plays at PS21 on Route 66 in Chatham, New York through August 30 with performances on the 23, 24, 28, 28 and 30th . Tickets are $20. Call the PS21 box office for tickets and information: 518-382-6121. If you go, bring a blanket. It can get cold on that hill.