Deaf theater troupe gives voice to poet's words


It sounds improbable -- Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood: Play for Voices" staged by the National Theatre of the Deaf.

And, indeed, the improbable nature of the production is addressed in the show itself, which is being presented at 4 p.m. tomorrow at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium as a benefit for the Hearing and Speech Agency.

The production begins with a short curtain-raiser titled "The Spinning Man," in which Thomas -- portrayed by Will Rhys, who also scripted the introductory piece -- asks the rest of the cast, "If you can't hear, what about the sounds that the words make?"

"As in any translation process, we use the strengths of both languages," he is told in American Sign Language and simultaneously spoken English -- the combination used in all NTD productions.

One measure of how well this works is that this is the second time the NTD has produced "Under Milk Wood," a funny, touching, lyrical look at an ordinary day in a small Welsh village.

The NTD first produced a version of Thomas' script -- originally intended as a radio play -- 25 years ago under the title, "Songs From Milk Wood." That was such an effective vehicle, the company took it to Broadway. The current production, mounted in honor of the work's 40th anniversary, launched a 42-city national tour in September; the second stop was the site of "Under Milk Wood's" premiere -- New York's 92nd Street Y.

Rhys and fellow cast member Camille L. Jeter, who serve as the NTD's artistic directors, discussed the show after a recent performance at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly.

A founding member of the company as well as a performer in the NTD's original version of "Milk Wood," the impish-looking Rhys pointed out that Thomas himself said, "When one reads a poem, one should almost see the shape of the poem simply from hearing the words."

With that in mind, he explained, "Under Milk Wood" has proved especially well suited to a major aspect of the NTD's mission: "To take great pieces of literature, great pieces of language, and show how they could be enhanced through sign language."

One way "Under Milk Wood" is enhanced is by Jeter's varied portrayals of 10 characters, ranging from geriatric Mary Ann Sailors to the postman's wife, Mrs. Willy Nilly, who steams opens letters before her husband delivers them.

Playing so many roles "is a great challenge to me as an actor," the expressive blond actress said through an interpreter. Just as a hearing actor might use separate accents for each role, she says, so she employs "different sign language for different characters."

Growing up as part of a deaf family in Detroit, Jeter was a teen-ager when she first saw the NTD perform. That was a decade after Rhys, a trained gymnast and actor raised in suburban Chicago, was invited to teach acrobatics at the nascent NTD.

"The idea [behind the company] was that the best way to show a previously almost ignored and sometimes misunderstood and under-appreciated group of people is to show them doing something in a remarkable fashion," Rhys says. "And theater, because it is immediate and live and confrontational, was the best way to bring the talents of theater artists who are deaf to the forefront.

"The other reason for starting the company was that [Founding Artistic Director] David Hays said this is an extraordinary means of expression," Rhys says. "It's inherently theatrical, and it does serve to make a group of people who had what they called 'the invisible handicap,' visible."

"Under Milk Wood" turned out to be such an excellent means to accomplish this that over the years, the NTD has staged several other Dylan Thomas works, most notably "A Child's Christmas in Wales," which it has revived on numerous occasions, including at the White House in December.

For Rhys -- whose theatrical career has also included a decade in residence at the Cleveland Play House -- returning to "Milk Wood" after 25 years has been "a much fuller, richer experience.

"I was a very young actor when I did it the first time and had no business doing Dylan Thomas. I was running on instinct. This time it was like a friend I forgot I had and didn't know I could know so much more about."


What: "Under Milk Wood"

Where: Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College, Towson

When: 4 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $15 (proceeds benefit the Hearing and Speech Agency)

Call: (410) 337-6333.

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