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My grandmother owned a vinyl copy of A Child’s Christmas in Wales and she used to play it the night before the big day. The opening lines still strike a nostalgic chord in me, even though I’ve never set foot in a small coastal town in Wales.
It takes just the right voice to utter any of the story’s opening lines—“All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street.” Dylan Thomas’s melodious phrasings are best appreciated when read by his own soulful baritone, now available on YouTube. Properly told, the story can imbue this most oversold of holidays with a bit of its original fantasy.
The Lantern Theater’s production struggles, very apparently, to achieve this feat. But despite the straining efforts of the cast and the stunning sweep of the set, they never quite manage to get where they want to go. Geneviève Perrier, who plays the young boy of Thomas’s remembrances, is fine in the lead role, as are the supporting cast of Doug Hara, Amy Smith and Charlie DelMarcelle (who plays everyone else). But the beauty of A Child’s Christmas in Wales is the perfection with which Thomas captures the reverence and glee that so many children feel on December 25. Would it be too much to ask that a few kids be cast in a play that’s so purely wrapped up in the wonders of youth? Perrier makes every effort to embody the qualities of a naïf, but the role requires an actual child actor.
The real failing of Lantern’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales lies not with the actors, but with the creators. Charles McMahon and Sebastienne Mundheim did an excellent job with the trappings (although a vaguely creepy white boy doll is entirely unnecessary), from darling little cottages spewing beautifully rendered smoke to their rendition of Thomas’ freezing Welsh waves.
But their attempt to bring the story to life is far too self-serious. This is a slim children’s book, remember, studded with candy cigarettes and snowballs well hurled. It’s a fun read. The Lantern’s version seems portentous, almost ominous at times. This sober, somber rendition fails to suffuse the watcher with the necessary warming glow. A Christmas play that feels too greatly labored has missed the point. A great deal of work was clearly put into this production, but it fails to achieve the feeling of effortlessness that any adaption of Thomas’s work should strive for.
The source material contains lines that, when seen in isolation, look absurdly dense and strained: “Now we were snow-blind travelers lost on the north hills, and vast dewlapped dogs with flasks round their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying ‘Excelsior’,” Thomas writes of a nighttime expedition. But when you read the thing or— better yet— listen to it, these bulging sentences don’t stand out. The story washes over you because that’s just the way he talks. It’s a tale better heard, or read, than seen.
To read another review by Gary L. Day, click here.
What, When, Where
A Child’s Christmas in Wales. By Dylan Thomas, co-created by Charles McMahon and Sebastienne Mundheim; Mundheim directed. Lantern Theater production through January 5, 2014 at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow St. (215) 829-0395 or www.lanterntheater.org.
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