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Dylan Thomas centenary celebrated with stirring production of ‘Under Milk Wood’

Oakland University celebrates theDylan Thomas centenary with a production of "Under Milk Wood."
Oakland University celebrates theDylan Thomas centenary with a production of "Under Milk Wood."Poster design by Jeremy Barnett

Under Milk Wood at O.U.

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Oakland University’s Theatre Department is celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas by staging the lilting radio drama that first aired in 1954 – “Under Milk Wood.” The play is rich with the alliterative word pairings that characterize Thomas’ poetry; the night sky is “Bible black,” the townsfolk’s dreams dance with “bobs and buttontops” while they sleep in their “blinded bedrooms.”

This enchanting production, lovingly directed by professor of theatre Karen Sheridan, is remarkable on many levels. First, the company of undergraduate theatre students clearly appreciates that this play’s primary pleasure is the music of Thomas’ words. Second, they embrace Thomas’ deliciously juvenile sense of humor and sweet sensuality without feeling the need to rub the audience’s collective nose in it. Third, and most surprising, this production incorporates shadowed sign language interpretation, courtesy of Synergy on Stage. Ironically, in a play that is so much about the spoken word, this adds striking visual dimension – a delicate parallel to the audio proves equally stirring and fully integrated. In a favorite scene, the ASL interpreter wiggles her fingers to represent steam from a tea kettle, while the Post Master’s nosey wife waves an envelope over her fingers to steam open the seal. Perfect.

There isn’t really a single story or plot to “Under Milk Wood” – it is simply a snapshot of life in the small Welsh fishing village of Llareggub. (Yes, that spells “bugger all” backwards, and you can be sure that Dylan Thomas loved that little inside joke.) The play opens with the two primary narrative voices – performed by Bryan Baylor and Anna Marck – inviting us into the dreams of the village inhabitants. We meet blind old Captain Cat (Mitchell Aiello), who dreams of his dead crew and bedtime visits from his special darling. And we dip into the dreams of the village folk: the obsessive Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, who dreams of nagging her two dead husbands; Organ Morgan, who is so obsessed with his music he plays it in his sleep; and Mog Edwards and Myfawny Price, who love each other chastely from opposite sides of the town. There are others characters, each with their own private passions and obsessions. And having insight into their dreams, we can enjoy watching them interact as the sun rises and sets in this sleepy Welsh town. It all ends with a bit of dreamy Celtic music and the deep satisfaction of experiencing life “Under Milk Wood.”

Excepting the three principals, the cast members of “Under Milk Wood” play multiple roles, which adds to the fun. The stellar cast includes: Bobby Brooks, Pablo Calzada Munoz, Benjamin Deman, Aubrey Fink, Briana Fogleman, Gabe Jamison, Bianca Keitel, Sarah McEneaney, Luciana Piazza, Billy Robinson, Callie Smith and Carrie Wogaman, plus understudies Maggie Hinckley and Ian Turnwald.

This wonderful play is rarely staged and you are wise to seize this opportunity. "Under Milk Wood" runs through Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014 in Varner Hall’s Studio Theatre on the campus of Oakland University, 2200 N. Squirrel Road in Rochester. Maps of the campus are available online or by searching for "Varner Hall" on a smartphone. Varner Hall is situated near parking lot No. 26, off Pioneer Drive. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday, with an additional show time at 10 a.m. Friday, Feb. 14. Tickets are $14 general; $8 students; $8 children and 10 a.m. matinee. Tickets are available at the door, online or by calling 248-370-3013 during regular box office hours. Doors open 30 minutes prior to performance. For additional information, call (248) 370-2030.