Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood unfolded like a living poem when it opened this week in downtown Red Deer.
This odd bit of whimsical theatre, running at the Welikoklad Centre, takes an extraordinary look at life in an “ordinary” Welsh village. Of course, there was nothing remotely typical about Thomas’s fictional setting.
With surreal characters nagging their deceased husbands, or counting sheep resembling their spouse, it clearly wasn’t a realistically peopled, conventional Red Deer College Theatre Studies play that opened on Wednesday night.
Instead, a stage full of blue-cloaked narrators with candles took us on a nighttime tour of the village of Llareggub (‘Bugger all’ spelled backwards).
We saw living and dead characters interacting in dreams.
We met eccentrics — a guesthouse owner who hates taking in guests, a postman who steams open letters so he can spread gossip, a “couple” who only exchange affection in writing, and many others. And we saw their hopes, fears, secret loves, and embarrassing moments play out in their minds.
The second act was more straightforward: Llareggub residents lived out a typical day in their village. But there still wasn’t an easy hook to this play.
With little plot and no conflict to speak of (save for occasional spats between characters), it was easy to disengage from what action there was — especially when Thomas’s poetic lines were not properly heard.
Under Milk Wood started out as a radio drama in 1954, become a 1972 film, and is now a stage play. Despite some interesting visuals in the RDC production, including a slide show of Wales, it should have remained a radio drama in which listeners have to hang on every word, since everything rests on Thomas’s lovely, playful use of descriptive language.
That’s both the reward and the problem with this show, directed by Tom Bradshaw.
There’s a lot of talent in this first-year cast, and the play’s pacing was brisk. But the decision to use 13 narrators instead of two at the beginning just added to the confusion.
Sometimes too much was happening on stage, distracting from the spoken word. And sometimes the first-year actors became too engrossed in the oddball characters they are portraying — they spoke too quickly or unintelligibly.
But when Thomas’s words were clear enough — and this play definitely picked up steam in the second act — there were moments of humour and pathos that transcended his little Welsh village to highlight some universal truths.
For instance, marriage can be maddening. But hopefully, people don’t often dream of offing their spouses, as does Mr. Pugh as he peruses the book Lives of Great Poisoners for helpful hints.
The unending nature of love was also suggested in the play. In a scene involving Captain Cat, the blind old sea captain regularly meets up with his dead true lover, Rosie Probert, in his dreams. Whenever she no longer remembers him, he despairs.
We know her loss pierces his heart each time he awakens when a passing child notices the captain’s tears.
“Time passes, time passes,” chants the chorus in the play. But the dead never leave the living in Llareggub — just as they don’t in Red Deer or anywhere else.
As Rev. Eli Jenkins says in his prayer to God: “O please do keep Thy lovely eye, on all poor creatures born to die. … We are not wholly bad or good, who live our lives under Milk Wood, and Thou, I know, wilt be the first, to see our best side, not our worst. …”
This play, suitable for lovers of poetry in general, or Dylan Thomas in particular, continues to Saturday.