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Theater Review A triumph of words and voices

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

UNDER MILK WOOD, by Dylan Thomas. Produced by The Irish Arts Center and The Company of Impossible Dreams. At the Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51 St. Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Through Aug. 8.

The magic is in the words, as anyone who has ever been exposed to Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood” knows. It’s a good thing, too, since the earnest, full-hearted staging currently on view at the Irish Arts Center, a co-venture by the organization and a group calling itself the Company of Impossible Dreams, is so modest in physical terms that the word “production” seems excessive in itself.

The energetic little company of 13 actors brought together for the occasion by director James Maggard, however, doesn’t seem to know they’re working in the theatrical equivalent of what the “B”-movie people in Hollywood used to refer to as “a Poverty Row production.”

Or perhaps, knowing full well the richness and power of the surging verbal flow the florid Welshman created in his portrait of an “ordinary” seaport town — something like the Swansea, where he had been born in 1914 — they simply don’t care that they’re performing in front of a couple of cotton tree trunks that serve as entry ports and that all the “scenery” available to them is a leafy fringe resembling decorations at a children’s party, salted through with a number of sketchy house-tops.

Under Milk Wood,” after all, was written for radio in 1953, the final year of Thomas’s convulsive, disorderly life. The work, which the author called “a play for voices,” had been commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation, but it had its first hearing on May 14 of that year under the auspices of the Poetry Center of the Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association, better known as the YMHA or the 92nd Street Y.

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On that occasion, on which a roughish recording was made, Thomas himself directed the reading, and played the parts of the First Voice, the Second Drowned, the Fifth Drowned, and the Reverend Eli Jenkins, while the play’s other roles were shared out among actors Dion Allen, Allen F. Collins, Roy Poole, Sada Thompson and Nancy Wickwire.

The current effort has the considerable benefit of an absolutely first rate First Voice in the person of actor Kevin Hauver, who brings a fine vocal technique and rich understanding of the text to a nameless character who functions, in terms of “Under Milk Wood,” much as the kindly, pipe-smoking Stage Manager does in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” a classic American play of the pre-World War II era to which Thomas’s “play for voices” owes more than a little, just as it does to Edgar Lee Masters’ dark-hued “Spoon River Anthology.”

Director Maggard’s large cast, anchored by singer-songwriter’s carefully calibrated performance as the blind Captain Cat, who hears what everybody else in the town sees, romps through “Under Milk Wood” like children playing a cherished schoolyard game.

One of the very few moments in which the company’s fresh, gifted actors go dangerously wrong is when they’re actually called upon to portray the village’s children at play, which they do with precisely the variety of self-conscious coyness that historically makes a virtual minefield out of passages of this sort.

In the main, however, the members of the company of Impossible Dreams are on fairly solid ground, investing in Thomas’s sometimes overripe-seeming lyricism the kind of commitment and belief that tends to paper over any cracks that might otherwise mar the production and even aspects of the text itself.

Particularly outstanding among the women are Brigid Herold’s Rosie Probert, Susan Stein’s M’ Rose Cottage, (also fine as Miss Myfawny Price), Lorree True’s Ms. Organ Morgan, and Jennifer Trimble’s passionate Polly Garter.

Memorable contribution from Impossible Dream’s male performers include, in addition to the excellent work turned in by Hauver and Collins, are the Mr. Mag Edwards of Jamey McGaugh, (returning gracefully as Mr. Ogmore, Organ Morgan, and the Rev. Mr. Jenkins), the Butcher Beynon of Tony Rivera, (doubling as Sinbad Sailors), the Cherry Owen of Scott Kelly, and the maritally miserable Mr. Pugh of Sanjiv Jhaveri (ably coupled by actress Herold’s shrewish Mrs. Pugh), and the Ocky milkman of David Tirosh.

“Under Milk Wood” is, first and last, an ensemble piece, which director Maggard seems to have kept in mind at all times.

Thomas was, indisputably, a poetry star when he provided the First Voice, and Richard Burton was at the height of his powers when he recorded the role for Argo Records in what is probably still the best rendering of the play, but if “Under Milk Wood” is to work correctly, the village must be conjured up on stage as it rose in Thomas’s mind, complete with its ironies, its frustrations and even its unanswered questions.

There is a certain darkness in the work, although most of the time it is obscured by the jokiness and wit of the text’s surface.

One of the great virtues of director Maggard’s approach to “Under Milk Wood” is that he appears to have placed clarity of intention and delivery above virtually everything else in the production. Eschewing any attempt at authentic Welsh accents or speech patterns, the actors of the Company of Impossible Dreams play the words and the ideas behind them for all they’re worth, which turns out, of course, to be a very great deal.

Early in his narration, the First Voice says, more than once, “From where you are, you can hear their dreams,” speaking directly to the audience with reference to the inhabitants of Dylan Thomas’s village. In this simple, heartfelt staging, those words take on particular resonance and poignancy.

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