Reviewed by Tony Farrell
“Do not go gentle into that good night,” wrote Dylan Thomas sixty years ago, and all his poetry, he used to say, tried to offer a path out of darkness toward some measure of light. Now comes the chance, as holidays embrace us, to take in Richmond Shakespeare’s new production of one of the Welsh poet’s most glittering works, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, running through December 23 in The Theatre Gym at Virginia Repertory Theatre.
Thomas’s narrative poem has followed a long and twisting path over the years from humble origins as a one-shot BBC broadcast in the early fifties through a variety of stage and screen versions. But in the hands of Richmond Shakespeare Interim Artistic Director Jan Powell and her top-flight cast and crew, this staging of the poet’s memories of Christmases past—based on Charlotte Moore’s adaptation for the Irish Repertory Theatre—turns plain text into an irresistible ode to wintertime, family, and youth.
At its unabashedly sentimental heart, A Child’s Christmas in Wales springs from the simple, raw desire of every writer: to write down what you remember. Here, Powell widens the scope of Moore’s work by creating an imaginary family of five, with a young “Dylan” at its center. The cast then brings to life all the Christmas anecdotes and adventures jotted down and often read aloud by a grown-up Dylan seated at his writing table at the edge of the stage.
The aging poet, somber and reflective, begins the show by setting the scene of his youth: “It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas.” And soon his Christmas reverie of family games, snowball fights, crazy aunts, and indolent uncles comes tumbling out of the characters in a rush of poetic syntax and imagery. Instead of dialogue, the show relies mostly on declarative statements—a blizzard of adjectives, adverbs and other wordplay drawn from the poet’s writings—to build nostalgia for times long gone. But once I got used to the show’s stream-of-consciousness structure, I found myself mentally joining in. After all, under the hot glare of the holidays, doesn’t every family love to sit around the dinner table and tell story after story about the ever-nutty relatives, the gifts gone wrong, or the biggest snowstorm of all time?
A Child’s Christmas in Wales never forgets that Thomas’s powerful language is the show’s real star. To showcase the words, set designer Brian Barker, prop master Paige Skidmore and costume designer Virginia McConnell keep their set and actors spare and unadorned. With only keyboard, guitar, cello and percussion, music director Andrew Hamm weaves in carols (some familiar and others new to my ear) at just the right moments to create wishful, even prayerful, moments. The actors—nearly all with Shakespeare credits—sing with voices that never overwhelm the Theatre Gym’s intimate space or distract from the emotions at hand. Douglas Jones and Axle Burtness work overtime to keep the show’s energy and humor at just the right pitch. But for every high there is a haunting low: Late in the show, as lighting designer BJ Wilkinson turns faces to tungsten in the snow light, Elisabeth Ashby and Liz Blake White offer up an arrangement of “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” that will give you chills.
The show will be too abstract for very young children, but at only 90 minutes (with one intermission), A Child’s Christmas in Wales is an ideal holiday show for older kids, who will be drawn especially to David Millman, the young actor who plays Dylan as a boy. Clearly comfortable in his own skin, he keeps scenes real with what actors like to call “bits of business”—casually turning a book’s pages, chewing his lip or looking off distractedly. Kids of every age will immediately see themselves in him.
But it is John Porter as the adult Thomas who centers the show and grounds its narrative pacing. You may know WCVE radio’s on-air personality only by the sound of his mellifluous baritone, but with his physical presence, Porter brings just the right amount of world-weariness and understatement to the role of a poet who did not live to see his fortieth birthday. As the cast sings the show’s final carol entirely in Welsh, young Dylan places his hand lightly on his aging counterpart’s shoulder as if to promise that his memories will never dim, his light will never die, and the snows he remembers will never melt. A Child’s Christmas in Wales is that perfect snowflake falling down to the tip of your tongue. Catch it before it’s gone.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales runs Thursdays through Sundays, through December 23, in The Theatre Gym at Virginia Repertory Theatre. Purchase tickets by calling (800) 838-3006.
Reviewed by Tony Farrell