DYLAN THOMAS GROWING UP -- At the Kennedy Center's Terrace through September 1.
If Emlyn Williams offers to read to you, let him. He reads extremely well.
The Welsh actor is now reciting an anthology he made from the works of Dylan Thomas, entitled "Dylan Thomas Growing Up," at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. It can't be called a play, even in the loose sense of the "one-man shows" that have proliferated since Williams went on stage as Charles Dickens in 1950. Those have gotten increasingly elaborate, but Williams' performances -- he now has Saki in his repertory, along with Dickens and Thomas -- are simple storytelling, well done.
There is no wax-museum cleverness. Williams wears the same face and looks the same age, both his own, throughout. The costume is a gray suit with awful, modern brown leisure shoes.There's no use replaying your college poetry records to see if he got the voice quite right, because he doesn't try.
You don't find out much, in the course of the evening, about how Dylan Thomas grew up. Williams' selections are sketches told in the first person, some presumably true, but they tell you more about childhood in general, with its vanities, mistaken information, petty crimes and astonishments at the commonplace, than about Thomas' childhood in particular. As the narrator, this childhood Thomas is more interested in what he observes than what he is. You do not feel, after this presentation, that you could have distinguished Thomas from other canny-eyed boys of the time, but you would certainly recognize his buffalo-sized uncle with the waistcoat like a littered picnic ground and the tiny noiseless wife the uncle would have to hoist onto a chair before she could hit him with a china pug dog.
Of course, you can read these things for yourself. But Williams does a variety of voices, from young children to elderly drunks, each with a distinctive version of the embarrassed social laugh; and a range of movements from flinging himself on the rocks to soaring in fantasy flight over cities, in such fine, bardlike tradition as to enhance the text immeasurably. "He was smiling like a razor" is a wonderful line, but it's worth getting up out of an armchair to see it actually done.