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This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on December 8,

1999. All rights reserved.

Magical `Child’s Christmas in Wales’

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years

around the sea-town corner. . ."

"At most performances of `A Child’s Christmas in Wales,’ gasps

of pleasure can be heard coming from members of the audience, as soon

as these first words are spoken," says Robert Duke, the director

of the play with music at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. As

imaginatively adapted by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell, Dylan

Thomas’s prose recollection proved such an audience-pleaser last year

that it is now playing a return engagement through December 23.

Yes, there is a holiday entertainment alternative to the perennial

and (dare I suggest?) over-produced "A Christmas Carol." This

version of "A Child’s Christmas in Wales" was first presented

at the Shakespeare Festival in 1987, and Duke’s staging has been

recognized

as a marked enhancement over the original production, and even that

was described by Variety as "a stunning production."

Some adults may sense the tragedy of Thomas’s early death from

alcoholism

at age 39 as casting a poignant shadow over the otherwise lilting

and lyrical evocation of the Christmas Spirit in the village of

Swansea.

Most people, however, will view his minutely detailed evocation of

one Christmas Day gathering as a journey into the magical and joyously

perplexing world of a happy child.

While the language of the original prose has not been changed, the

playwrights incorporated characters and events from other Thomas short

stories. They also embroidered his memories of plum pudding, mince

pies, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, with traditional

hymns and carols, some of them spiced, as the Welsh are wont to do,

with some deliciously irreverent lyrics.

With the "distant voices" of the poet’s youth comes an

adventure-filled

day that includes the obligatory teasing of girls, the pranks of

mischievous

boys, the chaos surrounding a burnt turkey, a visit by the fire

brigade,

and the family tradition of sitting around after dinner and telling

hair-raising ghost stories. Duke says the wonderful cast was easily

put into the spirit of the piece when they were encouraged to share

with each other their own and sometimes equally strange Christmas

tales.

Duke thinks of it as "a little bit epic because `A Child’s

Christmas

in Wales’ gives you the feeling that it is all of Thomas’s family

Christmases and every holiday and family event all rolled into one.

The more time we spend with it we realize how much the audience

invests

in the successful outcome of the occasion," says Duke who also

acknowledges that a burnt turkey may, indeed, be the most dramatic

turn of events. More importantly Duke sees Thomas’s "the lovely

languor of satisfied dreams" as giving audiences what they are

looking for.

Although both he and the actor Andy Paterson, who plays Thomas,

listened

to the recording that Thomas made just two years before his death,

they apparently were not particularly enamoured by Thomas’ delivery

and veered away from it.

"It’s not the best telling of the tale," says Duke.

"Thomas

sort of sings it rather than telling the tale the way it has to be

on a stage, even though a lot of people know that recording."

Duke acknowledges that both he and Paterson knew that their goal

and the company’s was to feel the pleasure of speaking the words,

like eating wonderful food. "It’s hardly Shakespeare, but like

Shakespeare you can put your own imprint on it. I was mostly taken

with the Welshness of it."

Duke knew that a major task was to create a look and a feel for Wales.

Ask anyone who saw the show last year (myself included) and they will

tell you how, without a lot of high tech scenery, the atmosphere

created

by set designer Larry Brown, is dense with a feeling for this place.

"Most people don’t know what Wales is like," says Duke,

describing

the view of the ocean, and the cliffs that young Thomas could see

from his bedroom window. One doesn’t doubt that, with a little

imagination,

it is possible to travel to the seven steep hills of Swansea and

Cwmdonkin

Drive where the Thomas family lived.

One of the more imaginative devices used in "A Child’s Christmas

in Wales" is the thread of carols and hymns that have been spliced

into the tale by the adapters. Duke says that his respect grew when

he realized that all the hymns are Welsh or written by Welshmen, and

that it is traditional for them to take old tunes and write new words.

So don’t be surprised if "The Green Grass Grew All Around"

has been changed to "The White Snow Fell," or if you don’t

know the words to "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful," "Holy, Holy,

Holy," or the even more obscure new lyrics actually sung in Welsh

to an old Welsh folk song "Mochyn Du." However,

traditionalists

can be assured that they will still be able to recognize all the

lyrics

to such favorites as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and

"All

Through the Night."

It is heartbreaking to think that Thomas would write this sweet,

joy-filled,

sentimental story only a couple of years before his death from

alcoholism.

Although this lauded short-story writer, poet, and playwright came

to believe that his rather turbulent life had been a series of

tragedies,

he was still able to evoke the kind of memories that make people glad

to be alive. Even as his life was getting harder, his stories were

getting gentler.

If these gentle memories seem to be the antithesis of

a man who seemed to be hell-bent for self-destruction, they are,

according

to Duke "reasonably accurate based on what we know about

Thomas."

Duke says that the research he did paid off because he was able to

find the source for the characters, like the aunts and uncles, that

have been added to the story. "If you dig through the other

stories,"

says Duke, "you find that an old family friend who was a socialist

grocer is now an uncle."

Duke is impressed how the adapters were able to suggest, in the

relationship

between Thomas and his best friend Tom and three or four of his

buddies,

how, despite the time spent in boyish pranks, "they matched wits

and searched their intellect." In reality, Thomas did have a group

of boyhood friends, many who would become famous, who sat around and

would play a game where each would write a line of poetry and pass

it to the next to continue.

The play takes ideas from "A Child’s Christmas in Wales" as

well as all over Thomas’ writing. "The script is littered with

phrases and dialogue from other short stories." Duke praises the

efforts of adapters to stick to Thomas’ words exclusively. He laughs

telling me how Thomasaphiles love to come to performances and tell

everyone who will listen what short story a particular episode in

the play is taken from. Duke tells me how important it is for him

emphasize how "the Welsh have a very distinct point of view. We

want to take people to a place and a observe a culture that is not

Madison, New Jersey, nor Dickensian London." Duke has no doubts

that the pleasure of the play comes from the language and the way

Thomas tells it from a child’s perspective. He is also pleased that

the adapters have worked in plenty of Christmas cheer without making

us feel "Oh, dear, I’ve seen this before."

With only three new actors added to the cast of 14, the show has a

real sense of family. Because of the warm relationship with his

company,

Duke says there was an urge last season to "bump it up, play with

key changes," and turn the play with music into "a real

musical

musical." "I had to fight it," Duke admits, "because

of the rewards of maintaining the play’s integrity." This means

that instead of having emotion drive the characters to sing, they

are driven to song by nothing more than the love of singing, a very

typical Welsh response. Purists will undoubtedly be impressed by the

Welsh accents, characterized as "lyrical but sharp" by Duke,

that have been mastered thanks to dialect coach Steven Gabis.

Among the returning company that have perfected their Welsh accents

and the Welsh tunes, sung to the accompaniment of an onstage

instrumental

trio comprised of flute, viola, and keyboard, are Reathal Bean, as

Dylan’s father; Alice Saltzman (this writer’s daughter), as Dylan’s

mother; and John FitzGibbon, as both Tudyr and the Park Keeper. Also

featured are Brigid Brady, as Elieri; Eleanor Glockner, as Hannah;

Larry Raiken, as Gwyn. Rounding out the cast from last season are

Cathleen Charleson, Kristen Dially, Darin J. Dunston, Laura Flanagan,

Francis Kelly, T.R. Shields, and Chrisopher Wisner. Meren Berthelsen

makes her festival debut.

Casting is never an easy job. But, after auditioning about 80 actors

last year, Duke picked Andy Paterson, ironically the first actor to

audition for the role of Thomas. Paterson says he is, "tickled

to be back with this lovely company of people." If this comment

sounds a little bit Thomasian, it is because Paterson, who serves

as narrator and plays Thomas as a boy, has fully embraced the persona

and perspective the poet as a child.

When I ask Paterson what he has done to perfect Thomas’s slightly

gawky 12-year-old self, he replies, "Well, watching Robert (Duke)

hop around in rehearsals is like watching a 12-year-old." On a

more serious note, Paterson reflects on the poignancy of the play

and how it has entered his life.

I try to trip Paterson up by asking him if he ever went (in Thomas’s

words) "bobbing down the hill on the best tea tray."

"As a matter of fact I did, — a hill in Traverse City,

Michigan,

where I grew up," says the actor who makes the closing lines in

the play sound as if he is, indeed, channeling Thomas’s warm

reminiscence.

"I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses

on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady

falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some

words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept."

— Simon Saltzman

A Child’s Christmas in Wales, New Jersey Shakespeare

Festival , F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison,

973-408-5600.

The Dylan Thomas story continues through Thursday, December 23. $24

to $38.


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