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STAGE REVIEW

‘A Child’s Christmas’ still charms

Thomas classic has the magic of the specific

Stephen Libby (left) and Adam Freeman as the adult and young Dylan in “Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales.’’ Stephen Libby (left) and Adam Freeman as the adult and young Dylan in “Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales.’’ (Boston Playwrights’ Theatre)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / December 11, 2010

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The mosaic of memories that is “Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales’’ contains nothing all that momentous — except that the Welsh boy whom we see celebrating the holiday with his family will eventually grow up to be, well, Dylan Thomas.

One of the strengths of Burgess Clark’s stage adaptation of “Wales’’ is that it simultaneously honors the way Christmastime felt to that young child as he experienced it and the vaulting language Thomas later used to immortalize that period of his life.

That language is delivered with a blend of oracular majesty and a certain confiding intimacy by Stephen Libby, who winningly reprises his role as the adult Thomas in a coproduction by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and Boston Children’s Theatre that is back for a second time with its charm (and much of last year’s cast) intact.

As Christmas unfolds in his childhood home in Swansea, Wales, in 1923, the middle-age Thomas narrates and comments upon the action, and sometimes interacts with other characters. Since those characters include his young self, “Wales’’ offers a dual perspective that combines a boy’s eager sense of discovery and a man’s wistful nostalgia when, say, Dylan receives the gift of a toy duck that, until his father breaks it, emits an unusual noise somewhere between a meow and a moo.

Clark, who serves as the executive artistic director of the Boston Children’s Theatre, infuses this “Wales’’ with that blend of joy and melancholy so characteristic of Thomas, while drawing sensitive performances from the youngsters in his cast. They include Adam Freeman, now 10, as young Dylan (a role he played in last year’s production); Franci Dumar, as Dylan’s sister Nancy; and Coleman Hirschberg as Dylan’s boyhood chum, Jack Briggs.

Steven Barkhimer, as Dylan’s father, creates a patriarch so amusingly contrary that he refuses to remove his cap even when indoors (unwilling to reveal his baldness), and so seemingly devoid of the Christmas spirit that he grumbles about “a damn pagan rite’’ as he wrestles a giant tree into position under the hard-to-please eyes of Dylan’s mother (Margaret Ann Brady).

There is heart as well as steel to Brady’s portrayal, and Barkhimer’s too, especially in the father’s reaction when young Dylan recites his favorite Shakespeare sonnet. Most of the uproarious moments in “Wales’’ belong to Anne Gardiner and Shana Dirik. Gardiner shoulders the roles of Dylan’s Auntie Hannah and a neighbor named Mrs. Prothero, who enlivens the holiday by running around shrieking “Fire!’’ after she overcooks a goose and sends smoke billowing through her house. (Young Dylan and Jack Briggs, naturally, seize the excuse to heave snowballs into the house.) When the firefighters arrive and the crisis abates, Mrs. Prothero sweetly inquires whether anyone would like something to read.

Dirik puts her vocal skills to good use as Dylan’s Auntie Bessie, who unleashes a rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas’’ that threatens to shatter every glass in the Thomas household. In one funny scene, Auntie Bessie demands that young Dylan “dance with your poor, heartsick Auntie!’’ and proceeds to bustle him about the floor while he wears a trapped expression.

But the adjective “heartsick’’ applies best to another aunt, the one to whom young Dylan is closest: Auntie Dosie, a quiet, tentative “spinster’’ (poignantly portrayed by Meagan Hawkes) who has been, according to family whispers, unlucky in love. It is Auntie Dosie, the adult Dylan tells us, “on whom my child’s Christmas shall pivot.’’ Why? In the touching finale to Clark’s version of “Wales,’’ it becomes clear to the adult Dylan that Auntie Dosie had sensed his talent early on, and had bestowed a gift on him during that long-ago Christmas with significant implications for a future writer.

That final scene reflects an understanding woven throughout this production that the full meaning of small childhood moments only becomes apparent many years later. In the play’s opening minutes, the adult Dylan alludes to the fluidity of memory, confessing: “I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was 12 or whether it snowed for 12 days and 12 nights when I was 6.’’

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales’’ lives on as proof that Thomas remembered the essential stuff.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

DYLAN THOMAS’S A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES

Story by Dylan Thomas, adapted for the stage and directed by Burgess Clark.

Assistant director, Jeffrey Mosser. Sets, Anthony Phelps. Lights, Jay Zawacki. Costumes, Rachel Padula Shufelt. Original score, Ryan Scott Oliver. Presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and Boston Children’s Theatre.

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