Arts and Entertainment

Dylan Thomas masterpiece takes the stage in Langley

Actors Amy Walker and Peter Lawlor rehearse
Actors Amy Walker and Peter Lawlor rehearse 'Under Milk Wood,' the dramatic masterpiece of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. A production of the play for voices starts Friday, June 19 at Whidbey Children's Theater in Langley.
— image credit: Joni Takanikos photo

When the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was staying in New Quay on the west coast of Wales one winter, he went out early one morning into the still-sleeping town, and verses came to his mind about the inhabitants.

Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives. Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrogered sea. And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wet-nosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.

And so begins Thomas’s account of what he first called “Quite Early One Morning” in 1944, and recorded for radio in 1945.

He worked on the piece for eight more years, and in 1953 it was finally named “Under Milk Wood,” a play for voices, and was recorded with Thomas in the cast at a performance at the 92 Street YMCA in Manhattan. Two months later, the poet was dead at age 39.

Thomas was reported to have said that “Under Milk Wood” was developed in response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan as a way of reasserting the evidence of the beauty in the world.

In order to capture that beauty in unfettered measure, director Barton Cole decided to allow a local production of the play to follow its own lyrical course and let the voices carry the day.

A staged reading of “Under Milk Wood,” a play for voices, opens Friday, June 19 on the Martha Murphy Mainstage at Whidbey Children’s Theater in Langley.

“Considering Dylan Thomas’s mastery of lyrical language, it becomes easy to think of the play as a piece of music with movements, motifs and themes,” Cole said.

“Some of the linguistic structures defy easy parsing and articulating, so there has been much work to ferret out the music of the piece.

“Really, that’s what poetry and theater in general is all about — about making a discovery. The poet’s job is to examine society and culture, and our relationship with our world — how we live in it and report back — as self-critically as necessary, as honestly as possible,” Cole explained.

“Sometimes the information is obscure and sometimes it seems obvious, but isn’t. But the poet works at representing some question about our situation, and invites us to experience it. Theater, then, is just another form of poetry. ‘Under Milk Wood’ is all of the above.”

The idea of producing the play in Langley has its own kind of poetry.

It was suggested by local poet and cast member Peter Lawlor, who said the need to see “Under Milk Wood” in Langley was obvious; as a play about a seaside town full of eccentrics presented to a seaside town full of eccentrics might seem quite logical and lyrical, too.

But beyond the obvious similarities, there are other attractions.

Thomas’s insights into the human condition and the situations of life, Cole said, may reveal something familiar.

“By showing us the lives and dreams — forbidden, conventional or absent — of the inhabitants of a little ordinary village, Thomas demonstrates for us his own expression of his place among us, and notions about our own place,” Cole said.

“This play is one of the timeless works of literature, and to experience it is rather like a having a comet overhead — rare, beautiful, mysterious and brief.”

“Under Milk Wood” is produced by Martha Murphy and features Judith Adams, Michael Barker, Max Cole-Takanikos, Kate Hodges, Jill Johnson, Kent Junge, Suzanne Kelman, Lawlor, Marta Mulholland, David Ossman, Jim Scullin, Joni Takanikos and Amy Walker, with parts also played by Murphy and Cole.

"Under Milk Wood" runs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 19, Saturday, June 20, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 21. Performances are on the Martha Murphy Mainstage, Whidbey Children’s Theater, Langley.

Tickets cost $15; call the box office at 221-2282. Advanced tickets are available at Rockhopper Coffeehouse in Clinton, Eddy’s and Moonraker Books in Langley, Catherine Dewitt Custom Framing and 1504 Coffee Bar in Freeland and the Rob Schouten Gallery at Greenbank Farm.

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