Stockbridge — Last year at this time, the now illustrious Sandisfield Players, under the direction of Ben Luxon, were poised to board a flight for England where their production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” was being staged at the historic Minack Theatre for a week-long run. This year, the growing group of amateur actors, hailing from Sandisfield and beyond, will grace yet another of the world’s stages when they perform Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” at the Unicorn Theatre Saturday, May 20, at 7 p.m.
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas had what his friend Bert Trick called, “The germ of the idea which…developed into Under Milk Wood” as early as 1931 when the 17-year-old was a student at Swansea Grammar School. The opening of “Under Milk Wood” draws the audience into Thomas’ story of a day in the life of the inhabitants of the small Welsh seaside village of Llareggub (spelled backward, “Bugger all”). This “play for voices,” populated by some of the best-loved characters in literature, is thought to juxtapose the wonder of Thomas’ childhood with the stark realities of World War II. While lyrically written, it is both riotously funny and deeply moving. The narrator guides the audience through the dream worlds of sleeping villagers to the antics of their waking lives and back again to sleepy dusk. Furthermore, while firmly rooted in place, the universality of Thomas’ characters shines through.
It is no surprise that Thomas’ play, which encompasses one day in the life of a small town, is of interest to Luxon and his players. The Sandisfield Players were born when a group of 20 people took the stage at the Sandisfield Arts Center, many for the first time, for a special performance in commemoration of the town’s 250th anniversary in 2012. Since that time, the Sandisfield Players have been augmented by members from Otis, Great Barrington and Egremont as well as Norfolk, Connecticut. For the past five years, their focus has been on inclusive productions, such as Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood,” Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and excerpts from the works of Shakespeare.
“Under Milk Wood” is considered the poet’s greatest achievement; despite his being of Welsh origin, the effects of his work are far reaching. The poet gave a solo reading of portions of his work at the Poet’s Theatre, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the first staged performance of “Under Milk Wood” took place at New York’s Poetry Center, both in May of 1953; neither of these performances was recorded. The completed play, written specifically for broadcast on BBC radio, was finished just before Thomas’ death in 1953 at the young age of 39. The ensuing years have rendered “Under Milk Wood,” a play that has never been out of print, to be translated into nearly 30 different languages and performed regularly all over the world.
The Sandisfield Players’ pair of 2012 performances was deemed “eccentric, quirky but perfect” by reviewer Barbara Muso Penn, who called the show “superb.” As is often the case, Penn was struck by company director Luxon who “commanded the stage…with his deep baritone voice, serving as both narrator and Rev. Eli Jenkins, the poet.” And of his own work, Dylan Thomas wrote in 1951: “…the idea that I write a piece, a play, an impression for voices, an entertainment out of the town I live in, and to write it simply and warmly and comically, with lots of movement and varieties of moods, so that, at many levels, through sight and speech, description and dialogue, evocation and parody, you come to know the town as an inhabitant of it.”
And so, for all of us in the Berkshires and beyond, this performance proves to be a pivotal intersection of Wales, Sandisfield and Stockbridge, all made possible by a true amateur, nonprofessional, community group of players exploring a work carried not by action or movement, but voice – perhaps the most invaluable of tools, both individually and collectively.
For tickets and more information, see the Berkshire Edge calendar or call (413) 997-4444.