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Pair of Classics : A new company of experienced actors is bringing the Theatre Exchange back to life with a production of Dylan Thomas' 'Under Milk Wood.'

February 26, 1993|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the four decades since he wrote it, just before his death, Dylan Thomas' tone poem about life in a Welsh village, "Under Milk Wood," has pretty much achieved the status of a classic. It is performed at colleges and high schools and, frequently, on the radio.

It was written as a radio play for the British Broadcasting Co. and finished on a transatlantic flight to New York, just in time for its premiere at the Poetry Center at the YMHA in Manhattan. Parts were completed just before the poet stepped onstage. Why has it survived and become a classic? Because it is honest, true, darkly comedic and, above all, because it is not only poetic in its language, but in its view of humanity.

Both reasons account for the current incarnation of "Milk Wood" at North Hollywood's Theatre Exchange, a venerable place that has been dark for several years. A new company is bringing it back to life. The company is called Interact, and its goals are high, its purpose altruistic.

Co-producer Marilyn McIntyre says: "Originally, we met to read good pieces, usually a classical or established piece. All of us came from classical training. We moved into the Theatre Exchange space when we realized we needed a more permanent home. We're struggling with becoming a producing organization."

Having started out in an unused apartment that "happened to have electricity in it," the group has come to life at Theatre Exchange. Interact is a company of experienced actors, all working in films or television, who need a place to stretch their talents and experiment. McIntyre says: "We are not about cranking out a show every six weeks. We're not that kind of organization. Yet."

The company, she says, is not "for all actors here in Los Angeles. If an actor wants to be in something to be seen by the people in the industry to get a television or film job, this may not be the company for them. We're already doing that. We have the agents, and we're working. We have people working in the top regional theaters all over the country."

Why, then, this theater? And why "Under Milk Wood"?

"Milk Wood" director James Gleason says he was talking to his wife one night about material that might be suitable for Interact. She suggested the play. Gleason told her it was something they did in high schools. His wife insisted he read it again.

He did, and realized that the language of the play offers actors opportunities for expression far beyond what is available in television work.

"It's a terrific piece," Gleason says. "It's great work, it's wonderful writing, it's poetry, it's things that this company handles very well. They have the experience to handle this material. It's not easy. It's as simple as that."

Two of the performers are James Greene, remembered for his Broadway bows in "The Iceman Cometh" and "Compulsion" and TV's "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," and Mary Carver, who created the roles of Aunt Sally in "The Fifth of July" on Broadway and Cecilia Simon on TV's "Simon and Simon." Both need this artistic work to keep their talents breathing, they say.

Carver, who plays several characters, says, "My characters are a whole other thing, so far as the demands and the language. I hear a wonderful rhythm going on. When you're doing television, there really aren't any demands on you. Doing something like this is a joy. We don't get challenges on television."

Greene agrees with the challenge of the play's language. "It's like a torrent," he says, "the words just tumble out at you."

Director Gleason says part of the difficulty is "getting a grasp of the fact that it's like a piece of music."

It's also a slice of life in a small town. Even though the town Dylan Thomas wrote about is in Wales, Greene says, "I keep thinking that this play is about a community that's about four blocks in North Hollywood--any neighborhood that we know about, and the people in it."

Gleason reminds Greene that the neighborhood is smaller than he thinks. "Don't forget," he says, "that you and I played father and son on 'Molly Dodd.' "

Where and When What: "Under Milk Wood." Where: Theatre Exchange, 11855 Hart St., North Hollywood. When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays through April 4. Price: $10. Call: (818) 773-7862.

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