By Joseph Hurley
A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES, by Dylan Thomas. Directed by Charlotte Moore. Starring Louise Favier, Kitty Sullivan, Shaun Sheley, Geddeth Smith and Marsh Hanson. At The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC. Through Dec. 23.
It only lasts a little under 55 minutes, but it’s extremely unlikely that there’s a friendlier, warmer or more rewarding hour to be found on any New York stage at the moment than the Irish Repertory Theatre’s remounting of its version of Dylan Thomas’ enduring holiday classic, "A Child’s Christmas in Wales."
This is the third Christmas season that the Irish Rep has produced its abundantly charming take on Thomas’s rich portrait of the boyhood Yuletide celebrations he experienced in Swansea, the seacoast town in southern Wales, where he was born on Oct. 27, 1914.
The Rep’s "Child’s Christmas" isn’t a straight reading of the text, but, rather, as arranged and directed by the group’s artistic director, Charlotte Moore, a kind of musical production sparkling with interpolated songs, carols, and parody verses, some of the best of which are the adroit work of the agile Moore.
The five-member cast of this year’s production, which will run through this Saturday evening, is made up of Irish Rep veterans, none of whom, as it happens, were involved on either of the two previous occasions when the Rep produced "A Child’s Christmas in Wales" for a brief holiday run, which represented, as much as anything, a kind of gesture of gratitude for the ongoing loyalty of its regular patrons.
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This year, the cast includes Louise Favier, Kitty Sullivan, Shaun Sheley, Geddeth Smith and singer-pianist Marsh Hanson, who opens the hour with a poignant version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The cast then directs its ardent attention to Thomas work, rendered with a clarity and a passion that serve as a reminder of just how precise, inspired and encyclopedic an observer of life details the poet was.
Who but a greatly gifted poet could come up with a casual phrase as pungent and telling as Thomas’s description of the Swansea shore on a wintry morning as "the ice-edged, fish-freezing sea?"
As anyone familiar with "A Child’s Christmas in Wales," probably best known in Thomas’s own recording of it, long a favored family holiday gift, knows, the text is filled with aunts, uncles, cousins and other family members, plus the child’s neighborhood friends, not to mention their pets, including the town’s cats, who, reimagined by the boys as lions and tigers, take a considerable pounding by snowballs before their tormentors are finally called in for the Christmas meal.
In Moore’s dextrous arrangement, the performers are asked to do double and triple duty as that wide-ranging gallery of bibulous aunts, drowsy uncles, various cousins, plus assorted neighbors and friends, not to mention a few examples of the local livestock, all of them fondly and nostalgically remembered and recreated by a Dylan Thomas homesick for his Swansea origins, and very probably unaware that he was at work on one of the poems for which he would be most warmly and passionately remembered.
The rich, evocative beauty of "A Child’s Christmas in Wales" thrives comfortably alongside the jokes and the bumptious family memories of holiday excess. The Rep actors do a particularly good job of rooting out the truth and the genuine depth of feeling lying at the throbbing heart of this tenderly gorgeous little masterpiece of familial foibles.
"A Child’s Christmas in Wales" is playing in the Irish Rep’s cozy downstairs space, while, upstairs on the Main Stage, Brendan Behan’s "The Hostage" continues its hit run. Brendan Behan died in the Meath Hospital on March 20, 1964, at age 41. Dylan Thomas collapsed in his New York hotel a few days after his 39th birthday and died at St. Vincent’s Hospital on Nov. 9, 1953.
Upstairs and downstairs, the Irish Repertory Theatre is giving both of these short-lived Celts rich and loving memorials.