Monday, December 29, 2008

A Child's Christmas in Wales

I first encountered A Child’s Christmas in Wales as a sixth grader at Shrine of the Sacred Heart elementary school in Baltimore. Our teacher, Miss Casey, in her first year of teaching, decided we would recite it as our contribution to the annual school Christmas show. My best friend, Terry, and I were rather flighty, so Miss Casey gave us each only one line to memorize, which was fine with us. I’ve never forgotten mine -- “And once I had a little crocheted nosebag from an aunt, now alas, no longer whinnying with us” -- or Terry’s -- “Our has got a black knocker.”

That was it for us, but brainier, more serious students like Leslie Morrow got long sections, including the famous six days and six nights when I was 12 or 12 days and 12 nights when I was 6 passage. While some of it seemed a bit antiquated to me, I was enchanted by other parts, such as the uncles who loosen their buttons, having eaten too much, napping by the fire and startling awake when the boys burst balloons in the room; or the children in the yard with their snowballs waiting to target the cats, who were smart enough not to appear, and then making use of the snowballs when a fire broken out in Mrs. Prothero’s house -- they hurled them into the smoke while waiting for the fire brigade to come. I also had loved that term -- fire brigade. It sounded so much more exciting than fire engines or fire trucks.

All of this and much more came back to me Saturday afternoon as I watched the Irish Rep’s charming production of Dylan Thomas’s classic. Director Charlotte Moore has the cast sing nearly 20 traditional and original carols, effectively interspersing the music between the storytelling.

The mood is established even before the show begins with Moore’s tasteful and cozy set -- four trees with nothing on them but white lights, a fireplace with a gas fire and a mantle covered with greens and candles. Five chairs for the singer/storytellers, an upright piano and an Oriental rug complete the scene. It’s a perfect way to unfold the magical memories of Thomas’s Welsh childhood, from his early morning waking to his falling asleep after an adventure-packed day of eating, entertaining relatives and playing in the snow with the other children.

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep,…” From those opening words through the final carol, Victoria Mallory, Jon Fletcher, Edwin Cahill, Ashley Robinson and Kerry Conte hit just the right notes, vocally as well as narratively. Music director Mark Hartman accompanies them on piano and harp. (All shown in photo, left to right.)

Costume designer David Toser adds to the simple elegance of the set by clothing the women in velvet dresses -- one green, the other a burgundy red -- and giving the men festive touches such as red socks or cummerbund. Michael Gottlieb’s lighting is just right for evoking the nostalgic tapestry of the tale. All together, it is a wonderful gift of a show.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales runs at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., through Sunday. Tickets, which are $60, $55 and a special 16 and under price of $20, can be purchased by calling 212.727.2737 or at the box office prior to the show. Visit for more information.

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