Under Milk Wood

Rated 5.0 Dylan Thomas is the original slam poet. Too bad he didn’t have a slam community in the 1930s and 1940s, when he insisted his poetry be heard instead of read. The Welsh wordsmith elevated poetry as performance by broadcasting his works on the BBC and touring with live readings, which let the public fall in love with his cadence as much as his words.

Though known for his poetry, and his short story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Thomas did produce a drama for radio in 1953 that he labeled “a play for voices.” Under Milk Wood is basically a Welsh Lake Wobegon, with a narrator introducing us to the gossip and eccentric seaside villagers of Llareggub—“bugger all,” spelled backward.

Now, a newly formed theater troupe, named “the Milk Wood Players” in honor of the troupe’s first outing, is presenting an impressive production of Under Milk Wood at the Thistle Dew Dessert Theatre. The show honors Thomas’ intent that words should be felt as well as heard.

It’s clear from the first sentence that this playful drama is written by a poet in love with live language and its rhythms and beats: “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courter’s-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”

The troupe’s six members—Eddie Elston, Joe Grady, Suzi Milligan, Stephen Quinn, Ardena Rose and Allen Schmeltz—trade off reading the narrator’s part and portraying the quirky characters, who have such colorful names as Organ Morgan, Ocky Milkman, Dai Bread, Gossamer Beynon and Nogood Boyo.

The strength of the writing is in the details and descriptions of landscapes, conversations and townsfolk, as well as their sins—both venial and mortal. And the strength of this production lies with both the talented actors and their imaginative director Maggie Adair Upton, who all clearly love and respect the work. The cast is cohesive and creative under Upton’s tight direction and displays talent and a genuine chemistry. It’s a troupe worth keeping together. Kudos, also, to set designer Thomas Kelly for his realistic Welsh pub, complete with a wooden bar, dart boards and beer ads.

Under Milk Wood is for lovers of language and lyricism, but it can be quite dense at times and hard to follow, with words rushing at you a million miles an hour. At moments like these, you just have to sit back and let Thomas’ lush language flow around you, so you can simply bask in its melodies. —Patti Roberts

Under Milk Wood plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with 2 p.m. Sunday matinees March 9 and 16; $14-$18. Thistle Dew Dessert Theatre, 1901 P Street, (916) 444-8209. Through March 29.