By Ruth Ross
In 2003, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey reprised their musical production of Dylan Thomas’s lovely prose poem, A Child’s Christmas in Wales (it had been performed in 1998 and 1999), which played to sold-out houses through the course of its run.
Well, after a hiatus of 13 years, the boys from Wales are back in a brand-new production, and none too soon. For it’s Christmas, and A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a most welcome addition to the theater scene, especially given the warp-speed, technology-driven life styles so prevalent today. For Christmas is all about tradition, nostalgic memories and family. Thanks to The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, we are privileged to share this day with the extended Thomas family in their “semi-detached” home at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive in Swansea. (Top, left to right: Peter Simon Hilton, Greg Jackson, John Ahlin, Andy Paterson, Alison Weller, Clemmie Evans and Carey Van Driest.)
Conceived as a memory play, this adaptation by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell captures the magic and wonder of a Christmas long past, celebrated in a small country across the Atlantic Ocean, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. The lilting poetry, classic Christmas carols and traditional Welsh folk tunes weave a whimsical and heart-warming holiday tale. Capturing the audience’s imagination early on, Thomas reminisces: “I can’t remember if it snowed six days and six nights the Christmas I was twelve or twelve days and twelve nights the Christmas I was six,” and the action is off and running! (Right: Greg Jackson as Dylan Thomas)
The set by Jonathan Wentz evokes the narrator’s Swansea neighborhood, with its rows of dormers, the Thomas’s front door and the environs and bandstand of Cwmdonkin Park where the boys go to play. Wentz recreates the snug coziness of a Welsh home of the 1920's, against which director Joseph Discher and his talented actors bring Thomas’s mellifluous words to life.
Greg Jackson’s young Dylan is wide-eyed and full of hi-jinks as Christmas snow blows in from the sea. He moves smoothly from the adult Dylan Thomas, with his posh British accent, to a pre-adolescent lad sporting a thicker Welsh accent. Aided and abetted by childhood chums Tom (the versatile Seamus Mulcahy), Jim (Thomas Daniels) and Jack (Julian Blake Gordon), he hunts hippos, shots gangsters, annoys Smoky the park keeper (Patrick Toon), engages in a battle with the Town Hill Boys (who, played by children, don’t look all that scary) and annoys his cousins Brenda and Glenda to much merriment. Even though they are obviously young adults, the actors convincingly depict children. Cassandra Cushman and Alycia Kunkle are hilarious as Dylan’s much-hated female cousins. Kunkle is an especially feisty little girl, giving as good as she gets. (Above, left to right: Julian Blake Gordon, Greg Jackson, Seamus Mulcahy, and Thomas Daniels.)
The story’s adults are equally endearing. Peter Simon Hilton and Tina Stafford play Dylan’s loving parents with just the right amount of authority and indulgence. Hilton’s recollections of his childhood Christmases are especially touching. They are ably supported by Alison Weller as rum-tippling Auntie Hannah, John Ahlin as jolly Uncle Gwyn (He doubles as a tipsy Postman), Clemmie Evans (the only Welsh actor in the cast; she gets to tell a hair-raising ghost tale) as Aunt Nellie, Patrick Toon as dour complainer Uncle Tudyr and Tess Ammerman as aspirin-popping Aunt Bessie—all of whom gather in the Thomas house on Christmas Day. Carey Van Driest (below) is splendid as the sad spinster Aunt Elieri, who recites a stirring poem about the Welsh bard Taliesin. Andy Paterson (who played Dylan Thomas in the first three productions) gives the role of outspoken socialist Uncle Glyn just the right touch of humor and outrage. (Above: John Ahlin and Greg Jackson)
The music provides a counterpoint to Thomas’s highly original poetic language. Using tunes of familiar carols—with new lyrics suited to the events on stage—along with traditional folk music and a few new songs, Brooks and Mitchell remind us that the Welsh are a people enamored of music (they hold national singing competitions each year!) and that the Welsh language is lilting and musical. Musical director Robert Long, sound designer Steven Beckel and Director Discher have made the music an integral part of the action. Tristan Raines’ costumes and Rachel Miner Gibney’s lighting lend the play verisimilitude while conveying the idea that the events presented on stage are memories in the mind of a sensitive and imaginative lad. Stephen Gabis has coached the cast in the Welsh dialect; it all sounds very charming except when the actors are singing. Then, it’s a bit difficult to make out the words.
It’s good to welcome A Child’s Christmas in Wales to the stage of the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre. The current production preserves the freshness and vitality of Thomas's language to draw the audience into the poem and reveal the universality of the boy’s experiences. A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a perfect holiday outing for the whole family. Although we may be unfamiliar with the particulars of Thomas’s tale, we were all children once.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales will be performed at the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison (on the campus of Drew University) through January 1, 2017. There are no performances on December 24 and 25. A post-play discussion with the cast and artistic staff will follow the 2 PM matinees on December 10 and December 17. Know the Show, a pre-show talk, will be held on Thursday, December 8, at 7 PM, with the show commencing at 8 PM.
The F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre is fully accessible with ramp access and an elevator to all floors. Wheelchair seating is available in both the orchestra and balcony sections. An infrared hearing device is available at all performances. For more information or to order tickets, call the box office at (973) 408-5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online. Group rates are available for groups of 10 or more.