Reviewed by Will Stackman
"To begin at the beginning" are the magical opening words of Dylan Thomas' evocation of one spring day in the life of a rural Welsh fishing village, much like his own home town of Swansea. More than fifty years after this dramatic poem was written, only a few years before Thomas' untimely death, Nora Hussey's Wellesley Summer Theatre, a professional company at the college, gets a head start on the season with a lively ensemble production of "Under Milk Wood." The cast is lead by veteran local actors Ed and Charlotte Peed, Lisa Foley, and Jackson Royal, all of whom have appeared with WST as well as other major companies in the Boston area. They're joined by Marc Harpin and Derek Stone Nelson, who've been seen here before, as well as the peripetatic Spencer Christie, recent Wellesley grad Victoria George, plus WST member Sarah Barton and newcomer, senior Rebecca Floyd. The ensemble has a convincing common rural sound which may not be echt Welsh but will suffice.
One of the challenges in staging this piece , which has at least fifty distinct characters appearing in under two hours, is assigning the major roles to various players. "Under Milk Wood" can be read in concert, or on the radio, by as few as four performers though six is the more realistic minimum. It can be done by eight very nimble actors, but the ten used here makes the action easier to understand, though a dozen might be more comfortable. Hussey's award-winning talent for managing ensembles is evident once more in this production. Her experienced cast is also a great help.
Ed Peed starts as the omniscient narrator, followed by his wife Charlotte. The two play several of the key married couples in the drama, including Willy Nilly Postman whose wife steams open the mail, Mr. Pugh, the schoolmaster who dreams of poisoning his shrewish wife, and Butcher Beynon who threatens to serve up the family pets. Lisa Foley portrays Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, who lives with the henpecked ghosts of her two dead husbands, Marianne Sailors, the oldest inhabitant, and long-dead Rosie Probert. The latter haunts the dreams of Jackson Royal's blind Captain Cat, who listens to the town from his window upstairs in the Sailors Arms. The narration in the middle of the piece is taken over by this character,
Meanwhile, downstairs in the pub Sinbad Sailors, one of Spencer Christie's several roles, draws pints for the town drunk, played by Derek Stone Nelson, while pining for Gossamer Beynon, the butcher's daughter, the seemingly unobtainable schoolmarm, played by Sarah Barton. Christie also plays the shiftless fisherman Nogood Boyo pining after the sultry second wife of Dai Bread, the Baker, played by Victoria George. Nelson also plays the Baker, while Barton plays his first wife. Incidentally, all three sleep in the same bed under a sampler which reads "God is Love." George also plays sweet shop owner Myfanwy Price, who's carrying on a postal love affair with Marc Harpin's very repressed Mog Edwards, the draper whose shop is higher up the hill. Harpin also plays the Bach-obsessed Organ Morgan, as well a British tour guide and frustrated farmer Utah Watkins. George's most pivotal role however is Polly Garter, who's no better than she should be, nursing her latest illegitimate child as she works around town. Meanwhile, Rebecca Floyd, as Lily Smalls, "seventeen and never been kissed ho-ho" lolls on the hillside tending goats, dreaming of being wicked.
All these characterizations, and at least a dozen more are well-defined and clearly presented as the kaleidescope of village life drifts through a lazy spring day. The R.N.Jones Studio has been arranged as a theatre in the round with atmospheric lighting behind the raised seating illuminating walls hung with netting and tattered sails. Production manager and lighting designer Ken Loewit along with scene designer and tech director Tim S. Hanna have created a unit platform set like a dock with conveniently placed pilings to serve as seating or tables. There are stools near the four entrances for actors not immediately in a scene, a few crates, and hiding places for props and sound makers. Live music and sound effects are provided by fiddler Fiona Hartley-Kroeger, with the cast providing bells and percussion sounds as needed. Nancy Stevenson's early 20th century rural costumes are accessorized as needed to change character. The final result is one continuous celebration of the poet's sense of language.
Thomas' two long dramatic poems, "Under Milk Wood" and "A Child's Christmas in Wales" are too often presented as concert readings. This Wellesley Summer Theatre production demonstrates how much physical theatres techniques can add to such pieces. They live on on the page, but they really spring to life when acted by a proficient company.