Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Under Milk Wood

West End Productions
Review by Rob Spiegel

Also see Dean's review of Divining Bernhardt and Carole's reviews of The Women and The Vagina Monologues

Phillip J. Shortell and Cast
Photo by Russell Maynor
Under Milk Wood began as an idea Dylan Thomas had in 1931 at age 17. By 1950, various versions of this day-in-the-life idea were presented as radio plays. In May of 1953 on a tour of America, Thomas presented readings of the first half of the play, while the second half was not yet completed. Thomas returned to Wales and worked on the play that summer, sending the BBC a new draft in October before returning to America. He began performances of the entire play in New York in November. Within a few days he was dead at age 39 from illness complicated by heavy drinking and poor medical treatment. The first radio broadcast of the play was in January 1954.

There are numerous reports about what inspired the play, including that Thomas said he wanted to show there was beauty in the world after the horrors of Nazi Germany's concentration camps and the dropping of atom bombs on Japan. Yet the early drafts of the play in the late 1930s suggest the concept preceded the nightmares of World War II. Thomas often said the setting of the play is Laugharne, Wales, where Thomas and his family moved in 1938. In the play, he uses the fictitious town of Llareggub, "bugger all" spelled backwards.

The play follows a day in the town, beginning with the dreams and nightmares of the townsfolk as they sleep. These dreams tell the passions and troubles of numerous characters who will appear over and over throughout the play. Under Milk Wood follows a plot similar to Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a play that likely would have been familiar to Thomas. The first act of Our Town covers the events in an ordinary day in small town New England, from dawn through evening. Under Milk Wood, though, is far more poetic than its predecessors. It's poetic to the point where there is little need for plot.

West End Productions tells the story through the voices and performances of eight actors, four men and four women: Merritt C. Glover, Tim MacAlpine, Colleen Neary McClure, Yannig Morin, Jessica Osbourne, Phillip J. Shortell, Carolyn Ward, and Dan Ware. Each actor plays multiple roles as there are 38 total characters. The narration task is passed from actor to actor. There's no way a poor human brain can keep all of the townspeople straight as the voices switch from character to character, but the gist of life in this seaside town is clear. Much of it is surprisingly bawdy given its 1950s performances. This town is far more sexually adventuresome than the folks in Wilder's New England.

While all of the actors put in solid ensemble performances, McClure, Osbourne, and Shortell are clear standouts. Both in voice and action these three manage complete transformation from character to character. I swear Shortell seems to be an entirely different human being from character to character. Even his personal charisma changes. I thought charisma only came in one flavor for each of us, in that we have any charisma at all. Apparently, multi-flavored charisma can be delivered at will.

McClure and Osbourne are both splendid with their instant metamorphoses, character by character. Being from the U.K., they are both particularly adept at the Welsh accent, able to deliver different versions of it in clear and understandable voices. The other actors have deep theatre chops and do admirable work with this tricky script of fast character changes and odd accents.

The play is demanding. The voices rendered by these fine actors effectively evoke this small town, but it's difficult to understand each word. The characters go by quickly, with many different stories and sub-stories, so it's hard to keep things straight, hard to really get to know any of them. I found it best to just ride with it, taking in as much as I could, leaving it to the beauty of the language and Thomas's earthy view of these townspeople to carry me through.

The set is a simple and effective collection of boxes of wood, blankets and platforms that are used to reveal little corners of the village as the action switches from one side of the stage to the other. Director Joe Feldman does a nice job with pacing, and he uses clever means to suggest beds, tables, pubs and seascapes out of a few boards and blankets. This is a play of poetry, and poetry is the critical focus, burning and raving through the close of day.

Under Milk Wood runs through November 10, 2019, at West End Productions, VSA North Fourth Art Center, 4904 4th St. NW, Albuquerque NM. Performances are at 7:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:00 pm on Sundays. General admission is $25. Online advance purchase is $22. Discounted admission is $20 for ATG members, students, and seniors (62+). Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 410-8524.