Theater companies are often drawn to the rich, lyrical rush of Dylan Thomas's ''Under Milk Wood," but this haunting evocation of a Welsh hamlet is one chestnut that's harder to crack than many imagine. Conceived as a ''play for voices" (which Thomas planned to narrate for the BBC), ''Under Milk Wood" can easily turn into a babbling brook onstage. And like all great poets, Thomas demands great voices.
The vocals are a bit thin, however, in the play's incarnation at Wellesley Summer Theatre, and director Nora Hussey seems determined to replace Thomas's trademark salt with more than a spoonful of sugar, so the production only occasionally reaches the darkness at the play's center. Still, even a taste of Thomas carries a memorable tang, and the Wellesley production does, in the end, conjure some of his ruminative music.
Imagine James Joyce rewriting ''Our Town," and you get a sense of the rippling rhythms of ''Under Milk Wood." Opening before dawn and closing at dusk, the play aims to move in and out of both time and mind. Thus the quick and the dead commingle on the streets (and beds) of the seaside town of ''Llareggub," and day slides easily into dream and back again.
The town's citizens, however, are solid enough -- and often solidly stereotypical, too. Between their desire for love and fear of death, they idly indulge in fantasies of murder and revenge -- that is, when they're not snooping or squabbling. ''Under Milk Wood," in short, is a far scrappier place than Grover's Corners. But Hussey seems intent on colorizing this rough-and-ready portrait with Disneyfied pastels, and thus force-feeds us what we're well able to discern: These flawed, failed creatures (who ''are not wholly bad or good") are fraught with their own romance and moral weight.
To be fair, Hussey's staging, on Tim S. Hanna's elegant set, can be effective, particularly when Thomas lashes sex and death together, as in the coupling of the blind Captain Cat with his long-dead love, Rosie Probert. Here the sublime Lisa Foley is riveting as the dream siren whose lips are ''filled with earth" and who is ''going into the darkness of the darkness forever," while Jackson Royal is nearly as affecting as her crippled consort.
Elsewhere there's solid if generic work from Marc Harpin, Victoria George, and Rebecca Floyd, and a few more theatrical coups, such as a ticking chorus of clocks. But most of the poignant moments are soon undercut by wide-eyed collective cuteness; even the fiddle playing is a bit too merry. What haunts us about ''Under Milk Wood" is its sense of isolation amid intimacy (in this town, the lovers long only for what is lost), and what's most acutely missing from this production is what was central to Thomas: the ache of facing the dark alone.