THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
STAGE REVIEW

Thomas’s classic ‘Christmas’ reimagined

Stephen Libby as the adult Dylan Thomas watches himself as a 9-year-old, played by Adam Freeman. Stephen Libby as the adult Dylan Thomas watches himself as a 9-year-old, played by Adam Freeman. (Jay Zawacki)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / December 1, 2009

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Every Christmas tradition has its loyalists: balletomanes cleave to “The Nutcracker’’ while drama buffs tend to favor Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,’’ with its chastening, heartening killer of a plot.

If Dylan Thomas’s prose poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales’’ has been undersubscribed, it hasn’t been for lack of resonance. His brief memoir of a family gathering in 1923, when he was 9, has lost none of its power to conjure timeless seasonal joys, including a child’s thrill in making mischief. What was missing was a story arc - until Burgess Clark, the new artistic director of Boston Children’s Theatre, drew on his own experience to tease out a fully realized, well-shaped narrative from this discursive sliver of text.

The amalgam, which premiered at the National Theatre of the Deaf in 2000 and is now enjoying a superlative production in a first-ever collaboration between BCT and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, seems seamless. Nearly all the beloved elements are present and accounted for (except, unaccountably, a personal favorite, surely the most useless of the “Useful Presents’’: “a little crocheted nose bag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us’’). Burgess has managed, magically, to weave Thomas’s wisps of reminiscence into a compelling, cohesive story.

He has done so by taking a page from Tennessee Williams and framing the fragment as a memory play. The adult Dylan Thomas (played by Stephen Libby) introduces the yuletide scene as a flashback and stays onstage for most of it, occasionally even interacting with figures from the past - as when, for instance, some misremembered or disputed moment calls for a revisionary reenactment. Libby does a remarkable job summoning the late poet. He not only conveys Thomas’s musical, orotund speech patterns (under diction coach Christine Hamel, the entire cast achieves an impressive Welsh homogeneity), he even suggests a physical resemblance, skewing his mouth rightward, as the rich - and tongue-testing - torrent of poetry pours out.

Curly-haired Adam Freeman, who is in fact 9, plays the young Thomas naturally and engagingly. If he, as well as Linnea Schulz and Coleman Hirschberg (who play Dylan’s older sister and best friend, respectively) are any indication, the young thespians involved in BCT are getting awfully good training.

Margaret Ann Brady portrays Thomas’s mother with a frazzled warmth that would set anyone to yearning for kinder, gentler times. Thomas’s English-teacher father, who warrants not even a mention in the original, has here been written in as a refreshingly astringent countermeasure to all the warm and fuzzy feelings wafting about (some enhanced by elderberry wine). Steven Gagliastro plays him as a lovable curmudgeon, entrenched in his armchair, stubbornly keeping his cap on (the better to camouflage his baldness and also to give rise to a decidedly off-color but well-concealed joke) and griping about “pagan’’ rites. When he does at length soften, it’s all the more affecting.

Clark has taken further liberties by conflating the plentiful aunts. A whole contingent of dowdy spinsters - who “sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers’’ - becomes the singular (invented) Auntie Dosie, a secret ally who’ll prove pivotal. Meagan Hawkes plays her with just the right blend of fragility and doughty tenderness.

Boston Children’s Theatre and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre began this project with the hope of creating a new holiday tradition. That they’ve accomplished, if audiences continue to respond as they did on opening night. The only catch is, the result is so resplendent, you may not want to wait another whole year to be charmed anew by this beautifully crafted story.

DYLAN THOMAS’S A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES

Play adaptation by Burgess Clark

Directed by Burgess Clark. Set, Anthony Phelps. Lights, Dale Placek. Costumes, Rachel Padula Shufelt. Produced by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and Boston Children’s Theatre.

At: Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theatre, through Dec. 23. Tickets: $35. 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com

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