When Dylan Thomas began writing Under Milk Wood, his famous “play for voices” about the sleepy Welsh community of Llareggub and its inhabitants, he intended it to be performed as a radio play with a full cast of actors. Over the years, the play has been both recorded and performed for stage in a variety of productions (including a film version with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole), sometimes with a cast as large as fifty. The Soulpepper version now playing at the Young Centre, a revival of last year’s popular production, features a sole actor, Kenneth Welsh, performing every single role.
Welsh’s performance is absolutely phenomenal. He commands the audience’s complete attention for the entire duration of the show, shifting back and forth through an entire townsworth of characters. Ted Dykstra’s direction is gorgeous. The minimal lighting, sometimes just the single beam of a flashlight in Welsh’s hand, is extremely effective, and the set, which resembles the interior of a neglected junk shop, has a sleepy, antique beauty that matches the text perfectly. As a reference to the show’s radio past, Dyskstra places an organist and two foley artists on stage who, while never characters in the show, provide the music and sound effects that accompany it.
In the show’s program notes, Soulpepper reminds us that Thomas himself read Milk Wood as a one-man show. But anyone who grew up with the holiday tradition of listening to LPs of Thomas reading his own A Child’s Christmas in Wales can tell you that his voice had the rumbly yet monotonous quality of one of your more well-intentioned, but sleep-inducingly boring English professors. Kenneth Welsh isn’t the next best thing, he’s better.
Under Milk Wood plays at the Young Centre until August 1.