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A Child's Christmas in Wales

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Katie Fabel, Kenneth Quinney Francoeur, John Cullum, Ashley Robinson, Mark Hartman, and Jacque Carnahan.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Christmas classics come in all shapes and flavors: big, small, flashy, simple, sweeping, homespun, electric, candlelight. When it comes to the theatre, the oversize tributes can be fun (the Radio City Christmas Spectacular never fails to entertain), but the miniature versions generally seem to capture the spirit of the season better. Charlotte Moore's adaptation of Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales, an Irish Repertory Theatre production playing at the company's current home at the DR2 Theatre just off Union Square, is almost microscopic, but its devotion to faith and family makes it a gingerbread-scented charmer and, in its own special way, the perfect little Christmas show.

Thomas's story, originally written for Harper's Bazaar but best known for a recording made in 1952 (a year before Thomas's death), is a minutely detailed look at a specific time and place even more than a cherished holiday, with a particular focus on the people who provided the brightest color. But the snow, the presents, the traditions, and just the atmosphere of early-20th-century Wales suffuse the lyrical 3,000-word piece, giving it the feel and sound of something written to be read over mugs of cocoa and hot buttered rum before the yuletide fireplace.

Moore has maintained this crucial sense by barely missing with it at all. She's taken Thomas's writing and interspersed it with carols both old and new, and planted it in a homey living room complete with hearth, tree, wreath, and piano. (No set designer is credited, but the twinkling lights are by Michael Gottlieb.) One person (musical director Mark Hartman) plays while five speak and sing, at once summoning up the Christmas that so inspired Thomas long ago and creating a new one themselves. The impact is one of oral history, with the family—your family, in essence—crafting new and enduring memories that, with time, will become more real and important than the original events probably ever were.

One can imagine, in these circumstances, how Thomas's "uncles" section could be paired with the ditty, "Aunts and Uncles Come to Dinner," or how "Silent Night" could appropriately be sung in both English and Welsh. Sprawling swaths of Thomas remain, largely unscathed, to anchor the reminiscences, and that's where most of the show's heft is found. But when they fuse most seamlessly, particularly during a late caroling session that doesn't quite go as planned, the effect is amusing, affirming, and original beyond merely the words on the page.

This combination of recitation and vocalizing is hardly ambitious. Nor, for that matter, is it daring, surprising, or edgy. (Charles Dickens ensured that the 69,105th production of A Christmas Carol you had the opportunity to see this year has a sharper bite.) But it works, enveloping you in a cozy warmth you probably haven't experienced in your own life in a good two or three decades (if even then). And the cast, which includes Jacque Carnahan, Katie Fable, Kenneth Quinney Francoeur, Ashley Robinson, and musical theatre veteran John Cullum, all of whom are clad in lovely but humble red-and-green costumes by David Toser, is a delight, slipping back forth between their own storytelling personas and the "characters" Thomas documented.

The stocky, bespectacled Robinson is almost a dead ringer for Thomas, whom he "plays" (to the extent anyone does), with a fine, youthful vigor and a boring eye for nuance that suggests someone who's determined to mentally record everything he encounters. He has a dark, rambunctious streak, too, which adds a bit of meat to the proceedings, and provides a stiffly spiced contrast to the more maternal undertakings of Carnahan and the romantic leanings of Fabel and Francoeur (whose quasi-characters have an understated love affair delineated by Moore's wispy but nice song, "Walking in the Snow").

Cullum presides with the air of a kindly grandfather, even holding a book from which he ostensibly reads or invokes the story, and offers some seasoned authority to the evening. He does the most to tie together the family aspect of A Child's Christmas in Wales, and make you feel not merely as though you belong, but as though you're an integral part of everything that unfolds. You are, for all intents and purposes, the child that's being presented with this remarkable history, by the people who know it and you better than anyone. Sure, it's a gift that's tiny and at best modestly decorated. But it could not possibly be more enjoyable to unwrap.

A Child's Christmas in Wales
Through January 3
The Irish Repertory Theatre at the DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street at 20 Union Square East
Tickets and current performance schedule: OvationTix

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