Dylan at Red Theater Chicago: Theater review

The poet Dylan Thomas drinks his way across America in Sidney Michaels's 1964 play.

Photograph: courtesy of Red Theater
Gage Wallace and Brittany Ellis, front, with Rachel Hancz, Casey Chapman, Meredith Ernst, Erin Haddock, Spenser Davis and Christopher Paul Mueller in Dylan at Red Theater Chicago

Sidney Michaels's 1964 play follows the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas on two lecture tours of America, taken near the end of his brief life; Thomas died before reaching 40, but as Dylan portrays him, he already felt like a has-been, having published much of his best work while still a teenager. And so he drinks and sleeps his way across the country in the first act, squandering the earnings he's meant to send back home to his wife, Caitlin; for the second tour, in Act II, she joins him, though their particular brand of brawling codependency doesn't really make things go smoother, either for the pair or for Thomas's American manager/handler, John Malcolm Brinnin.

Yet Michaels's play can't seem to decide if Thomas's loutish, drunken antics are a tragic flaw or part of the poet's charm. In Gage Wallace's impressive performance in Red Theater's revival, though, they can be both. In a nuanced, natural portrayal, Wallace imbues Thomas with a twinkly, garrulous magnetism that doesn't quite hide the growing darkness within. You can believe those around him would find his behavior as alluring as it is exasperating. Brittany Ellis brings force to the blowsy Caitlin, but we don't always feel the heat of the pair's tempestuous jealousy.

Michaels's seldom-revived piece occasionally falls into bioplay clichés, and it seems to end about five times before it's over. But what is really missing in the script, solidly staged by director Aaron Sawyer, are more opportunities for Wallace to deliver Thomas's own words. Dylan may well leave you yearning to hear this same cast read Under Milk Wood.

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