Legendary actor John Cullum brings an understated naturalism to the sentimental text. CAROL ROSEGG
By Orla O’Sullivan
If you haven’t had your fill of Christmas there’s a big helping of nostalgia to be had at the Irish Repertory Theatre until Jan. 3 in the form of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
It’s a musical take on the short story of the same name by Dylan Thomas, recalling, through rose-tinted glasses, his childhood in Wales shortly after World War I. As my cynical New Yawker companion and Christmas-grinch growled after the 70-minute performance, “If his childhood was so good why did he drink himself to death?”
Thomas seemingly viewed these two contradictions as somehow compatible. At any rate, he embodied them. Although he died prematurely at 39 after a drinking binge in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village in 1953, Thomas revered his father and idealized his childhood. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” perhaps Thomas’s best known poem, lamented his father’s imminent death while elsewhere in his writing he looked back on his early years through the beautiful metaphor, “time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
Grinches, you have been warned: the show is mostly played with an upbeat, breathless earnestness (such as is associated with 1950s housewives, here). The exception is the legendary John Cullum who brings an understated naturalism to the sentimental text—and a wonderfully mismatched outfit, courtesy of costume designer David Toser.
Cullum, an 85-year old two-time Tony winner, once played opposite Richard Burton in “Hamlet” and his TV credits include the tavern owner Holling Vincoeur in “Northern Exposure” and tobacco-industry executive Lee Garner Sr. in “Mad Men.” Here he reveals another talent by singing with a rich, smooth voice.
Anecdotes feature heavily in the story and there were a couple of times when it seemed Cullum possibly lost his line (reading from a book, but who cares, given his performance); if he did, he only made his character more believable in that storytellers typically check themselves in real life as they get their stories straight.
The music, of course, is a huge part of the story in this production. Charlotte Moore, artistic director of the Rep, not only adapted Thomas’s story and directed the show, she composed three of the 20-plus carols. One, “Open Your Eyes,” might be taken as a call to awaken not just to the day but the Christmas miracle and, indeed, a direction to the audience on how to approach the show.
There were several beautiful harmonies sung by the five-member cast and a most unusual “Silent Night” in that it was in Welsh, “Tawel Nos.” In a nod to the local audience, “Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake,” celebrated the particularly American antipathy towards fruitcake. “It could kill a man twice by eating a slice,” went the robust refrain.
The ensemble played various characters, children and adults, including young Dylan. Cullum was flanked by two young men, Ashley Robinson and Kenneth Quinney Francoeur, and two young women, Katie Fabel and Jacque Carnahan. Musical director Mark Hartman was behind on piano.
Thomas’s rhythmic language is mesmerizing and his many references to the snow in this story make for a symbolism that is almost the joyful antithesis of how James Joyce morbidly uses it in “The Dead.” Here the snow spins the comforting cocoon of childhood. “That was not the same snow” as snow now, to hear Thomas tell it. Thomas’s snow was “shaken from white wash buckets down the sky,” came “shawling out of the ground,” “grew overnight on the roofs.”
The boy surveys the blanketed village from his bedroom window as Christmas day ends. “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.” Silent night, indeed.
Can one inject enough dramatic tension into this sweet story to make of it a play? Even allowing for a fire and a possible haunted house on Christmas Days past.
My recollection was that the last Irish Rep production of “A Child’s Christmas,” in 2011 (in which Robinson also acted) succeeded better in this. But that might be as dubious as Thomas’s recollection: “when I was a boy… there were wolves in Wales.”
A musical adaptation of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” directed and part-composed by Charlotte Moore of the Irish Repertory Theatre, runs until Jan. 3 at DR2 Theatre, 103 E. 15th St. in Manhattan. Tickets are on sale at The Rep, 212-727-2737, or online at www.irishrep.org.