Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s prose-poem full of vivid memories of Christmas has been adapted for audiences of all ages to enjoy.
"A Child’s Christmas in Wales” isn’t found among the usual holiday theater fare, and with good reason. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s memory of Christmas doesn’t follow a conventional narrative structure, but recreates the atmosphere of Christmas in a series of descriptive passages.
“All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find.”
Burgess Clark, executive director of the Boston Children’s Theater, is the undaunted playwright who adapted it for the stage from the original story, and the production is being staged in conjunction with the Boston Playwright’s Theater.
Clark judiciously chose among the thicket of Thomas’ prose-poem to deliver a 90-minute nostalgic journey of the poet’s ideal Christmas. Most impressively, he did it without sacrificing the beauty of the language. He places the adult Dylan Thomas onstage through nearly the entire performance, weaving salient sections of the poem recited by the poet in service to the action.
Stephen Libby as the adult Dylan introduces us to his family in their simply furnished living room in Swansea, Wales, in 1923. We meet young Dylan, his sister Nancy, his parents and Aunt Dosie on the afternoon of Christmas Eve as they prepare for the arrival of uncles and aunts who will celebrate the holiday with them.
Clark finds humor in his adaptation. Dylan’s father struggles to relocate the Christmas tree at the insistence of his wife, while muttering “it’s a bloody pagan ritual” each time he drags it across the stage. Such comic touches are courtesy of Steven Gagliastro as “Pater” D.J. Thomas, whose performance anchors the frenzy of the first scene. Margaret Ann Brady deftly personifies Thomas’ description of his seamstress mother as a woman comfortable in “lace collars and men’s sweaters.”
Adam Freeman as 9-year-old Dylan isn’t burdened with a lot of dialogue even though he’s onstage for nearly the entire 90-minute show. The young actor stays in character throughout, and holds his own in exchanges with the professionals, a testimony to his nascent talent. He is a lovely child. Dylan Thomas himself might have imagined him as stepping out of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna.
Although this is a production of the Boston Children’s Theater, in a cast of a dozen members only three youngsters are part of the show – Dylan, his sister Nancy (Linnea Schulz), and his friend Jim (Coleman Hirschber).
Among the scenes enjoyed most by the youngsters in the audience was the fire in Mrs. Prothero’s house, the dialogue taken directly from the poem. The scene is completely stolen by Anne Gardiner as the hapless Mrs. Prothero, who runs from one end of the stage to the other screaming “fire!” and beating a dinner gong, to the delight of the kids in the audience, including the well-behaved fourth-graders from the Merrymount School.
Following the adventure of the fire – and what young boy’s fantasy would be complete without adventure – the uncles and aunts begin to arrive. Libby as the adult Dylan relates Thomas’ vivid impression of the family scene, and the poem glides from his lips as if the thoughts just occurred to him as he stands behind the sofa where the uncles are seated.
“. . . after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine.... I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, when they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. . . . and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.”
The tiny confines of the Boston Center for the Arts’ Plaza Theater gives the illusion of watching the events unfold with your nose pressed against the window pane, leaving you to consider the holiday myths of your own family. As Thomas acknowledges in the very beginning of the poem, memory is not always to be trusted:
“I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”
This is a most memorable production, for youngsters and grownups. I hope it becomes an annual holiday tradition.
A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES By the Boston Children’s Theatre and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St., Boston. Through Dec. 23, with special performances for school groups. $35, $28 students. 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com.
The Patriot Ledger