It’s true that “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is sentimental. But that adjective is not strong enough: It’s like saying the Hulk is strong, or the Flash is fast. Dylan Thomas, who wrote it in the 1940s (looking back on his 1920s childhood in Swansea, Wales), doesn’t just indulge in sentimentality here. He wallows in it; he rejoices in it. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more sentimental play.
So if you’re feeling the need to immerse yourself in something poignant but not really profound — and given the times we live in, it’s perfectly understandable if you are — you should know that the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison is presenting this play through New Year’s Day.
“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” began life as a radio project in the 1940s; Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell adapted Thomas’ words for this play in the 1980s. There is no plot, really. The scenes are just a series of Thomas’ nostalgic holiday memories, with some rapturous narration by Dylan himself holding it together. Greg Jackson plays Dylan as an adult but also Dylan as a child, skillfully transforming himself into a wide-eyed child for the memory scenes.
Everything is remembered warmly. The presents and the Christmas treats … the songs everyone sings together … the snow that blankets the city, and the warmth of Dylan’s house … Dylan’s stern but loving parents (played by Peter Simon Hilton and Tina Stafford) … his eccentric but well-meaning relatives.
Some colorful locals pop up from time to time, too, like a postman (John Ahlin, who also plays one of Dylan’s uncles) who tries hard to score some free drinks from the family, and a constable (played by Hilton) who harasses Dylan and his friends — but in a funny, ultimately harmless way, with a weirdly pinched voice that seems to come right out of a Monty Python sketch.
Some things go wrong. Dylan’s mother burns the turkey, and he gets in trouble for breaking a clock, and one of his gifts is a hideous ski mask. There are hints of greater troubles in the world, with Dylan’s Uncle Glyn (Andy Paterson) constantly bring up radical political ideas, and Dylan’s aunt Elieri (Carey Van Driest) mourning two brothers killed in World War I.
But nothing gets in the way of the merriment for long. Dylan’s crush on Elieri is seen as cute, not creepy. And if some of the characters seem a little too dependent on alcohol, or pills … well, that’s a quirk, not a problem to dwell on. Certainly not when there’s more presents to open, and pudding to eat, and songs to sing.
“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” runs through Jan. 1 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison; visit shakespearenj.org.
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