Under Milk Wood

No one expected much when Barto Productions’ Under Milk Wood opened in the fall of 1991 at Wrigleyville’s Cafe Voltaire. Over the years Dylan Thomas’s 1953 verse comedy, about the waking and dreaming lives of the inhabitants of a mythical Welsh fishing village called Llareggub (“buggerall” spelled backward), had daunted many theater companies who tried to put this “play for voices” onstage; the script’s fluid exploration of inner and outer reality defied attempts to give the play visual, physical life. But in Voltaire’s intimate basement theater, a sensitive non-Equity ensemble captured the mystery, melancholy, and ribald merriment of Thomas’s poetry, supporting their beautifully modulated line readings with an almost magical soundscape of music and aural effects. Directed by Peter Cieply and the late Michael Barto, Under Milk Wood was a surprising but worthy critical and box-office triumph, first at Voltaire and then at the Theatre Building after its 1992 transfer. But “time passes,” as Thomas points out in his dream play. Barto died of AIDS, Cieply relocated to San Francisco, the cast members dispersed to pursue new projects, and now Voltaire itself is about to close: the restaurant will cease operations next Friday, forcing the theater to seek a new space. Thus emotions should run high when the original cast of Under Milk Wood gathers for a one-night revival of the fabled production, an evening that will also include raffles, a silent auction, and a postshow party. Organized by Michael Garcia (whose eloquent performance as the narrator anchors the show) and featuring such performers as Patricia Kane, James Schneider, Michelle Messmer, Dai Parker-Gwilliam, and Patti Hannon (who’ll return from New York, where she’s starring in the off-Broadway edition of another Chicago hit, Late Nite Catechism), the performance will honor Voltaire’s decade-long role in nurturing offbeat and adventurous work–and will also raise money for the dedicated, perhaps quixotic efforts under way to keep Voltaire’s theatrical operation afloat after the cafe closes. Will the magic of Under Milk Wood be recaptured on this singular occasion? The proposition is risky–but then risk is what Chicago theater at its best is all about. Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont, 773-528-3136. Wednesday, May 13, 8 PM. $25. –Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Suzanne Plunkett.