Under Milk Wood
Under Milk Wood Credit: John W. Sisson Jr

How do you bring a “play for voices” to the stage, where it has to be seen as well as heard? The answers offered by the new Caffeine Theatre production of Under Milk Wood yield an uneven show.

Written by Dylan Thomas in 1953 as a radio play, Under Milk Wood follows the inhabitants of a fictitious Welsh seaside community called Llareggub through a spring night and day—starting and ending while they sleep, since it’s only in their dreams that they live out their inner lives. (“Llareggub” is “bugger all” spelled backward, an indication not only of Thomas’s irreverence but of the sexual content of many of the dreams.) Speaking through an omniscient narrator called the First Voice, Thomas gently commands the audience to visualize the images he creates through his hypnotic, sometimes hilarious wordplay.

“You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing,” the First Voice intones. “Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colors and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.” With its brilliant, alliterative rush of vowels and consonants—rolling like the sea that provides the town its livelihood and sometimes claims the lives of its men—Under Milk Wood is a celebration of the sound of the spoken word and a paean to the power of the imagination.

The piece had its official premiere on January 25, 1954, in a BBC broadcast that starred Thomas’s fellow Welshman Richard Burton. But its first public reading took place in May 1953—just a few months before Thomas drank himself to death—at New York’s 92nd Street YMHA. Thomas himself played the First Voice. (A recording of the event is available as part of a boxed set of Thomas reading his own work; portions are also featured on a CD included in a hardback edition of Thomas’s poems.)

In 1991, a small Chicago company called Barto Productions mounted a spellbinding version of Under Milk Wood in the cramped basement of the now-defunct Cafe Voltaire. The actors were placed among the audience, which was seated throughout the room in folding chairs. Using dim but precise lighting and minimal movement to focus attention on Thomas’s language, directors Michael Barto and Peter Cieply transformed the claustrophobic space into a limitless dreamscape.

The Caffeine Theatre staging—the first professional off-Loop production in 18 years, as far as I can tell—transforms the play into story theater. Director Paul Holmquist divides the First Voice’s narration among the nine members of the cast, who all play multiple roles, giving each a distinctive physical as well as vocal life. This approach serves the play’s humorous passages well enough, since it’s fun to watch actors switch back and forth between Thomas’s delightfully eccentric characters. They include Captain Cat, the blind old seaman who dreams of dead shipmates and makes love to the ghost of his beloved Rosie Probert; twice-widowed Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, who fantasizes about sharing her bed with both her dead husbands at once; promiscuous Polly Garter, who has sex with loads of men but dreams only of drowned sailor Little Willy Wee; young Nogood Boyo, who pleasures himself in the washhouse; Mog Edwards and Myfanwy Price, whose passionate courtship takes place entirely by mail; and the Reverend Eli Jenkins, whose verse sermons extol the “not wholly bad or good” inhabitants of this backwater Eden.

Dan Granata—who plays Eli Jenkins as well as Mog Edwards and the lovelorn publican Sinbad Sailors—has an acute sense of how to make the text sing as well as tell a story, and his characters have the greatest emotional depth. Callie Munson, Dave Skvarla, Elise Kauzlaric, Kate Nawrocki, Kaitlin Byrd, and Jacqui Jackson all fuse comedy and pathos—though Nawrocki is sometimes hard to understand—but Charles Filipov and Paul Myers rely more on caricature and surface mannerisms to differentiate their various roles.

Holmquist has devised some striking stage images, such as Captain Cat surrounded by the shades of his drowned friends, their arms slowly waving as if they were still floating in the water. But there’s little in Ian Zywica’s scenic design or Seth Reinick’s lighting to help us distinguish between the nighttime and daytime portions of the play—a crucial failing, since Thomas’s theme is the primacy of the nighttime dream life over the routine of daily activity. As a result, Caffeine’s uneven presentation comes off more as a series of seriocomic sketches than the dramatic journey through a dreamworld that Thomas had in mind.