There are few, if any, people alive who remember what it was like to grow up in Swansea, Wales in the 1920s. But Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” inspired by his memories of his youth there, still has a universal appeal. It’s theatrical comfort food, even if the warm, fuzzy world it depicts seems more distant each year.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has produced “Children’s Christmas” several times before — most recently in 2016 — and is returning to it again for its first indoor production since the start of the pandemic. It’s a spirited production, with lots of music, a little dancing and some wry humor to go along with its heaping helping of sentimentality. Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Bonnie J. Monte directs, using the 1980s stage adaptation by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell (drawing from Thomas’ 1940s radio reminiscences about the holiday, where were later recorded for an album).
Isaac Hickox-Young, an adult, is suitably wide-eyed and open-hearted as Dylan Thomas in his boyhood, exulting in familial love on Christmas Day, and he deliveries the famed writer’s poetic reveries eloquently.
Dylan’s father (Jeff McCarthy) is genial and wise; his mother (Tina Stafford) calm and comforting. Particularly memorable among the large supporting cast — mostly devoted to other members of Dylan’s colorful family — is Andy Paterson as Dylan’s Uncle Glyn, who is a fervent radical but still has a charming twinkle in his eye; Michael Stewart Allen as his humorously stiff and formal Uncle Tudyr; and Billie Wyatt (also excellent this year as Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse in the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s outdoor production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”) as his fiercely tomboyish cousin Glenda.
There are dark undertones at time, but nothing gets in the way of the merriment for long. Paterson also plays a rascally mailman who stops by the house, angling for a free drink, and Dylan’s Aunt Hannah (Kristen Kittel) is a big drinker, though this is seen as a harmless eccentricity, not a problem.
Allen also plays a constable whose berating of Dylan and his friends seems a bit over-the-top and mean, but this is just laughed away. And Dylan’s crush on his Aunt Elieri (Fiona Robberson) is not viewed as creepy. Elieri herself seems a bit melancholy, and it is explained that she is mourning two brothers who died in World War I, but she joins in the fun, singing and dancing with everyone else.
Dylan’s mother burns the much-anticipated turkey in the oven, which causes momentary alarm around the table. But they make do without it, and everyone is happy.
Was the world of Thomas’ youth really so much more positive and wholesome and uplifting than what most people really experience, in the 21st Century? Who knows. But it doesn’t really matter.
As Monte writes in the show’s program, this play “transcends all belief systems, and celebrates the things about being alive that are embraced by people across the globe, no matter who they are, or what they believe … given what the world has gone through, and is continuing to grapple with, it is perhaps the large dose of innocence — the bliss of innocence — that ‘A Child’s Christmas’ bestows upon us that is so refreshing now in December of 2021.”
“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” will be presented at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison through Jan. 2; visit shakespearenj.org.
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