By Vicki Weisfeld
Every Christmas Eve for almost 40 years, my husband has read us Dylan Thomas’s beautiful paean to the season, so I was excited to see the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production (opening night 12/3, through 1/1). Several different stagings of this heartwarming story are available in the New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia area this season. STNJ’s is the early 1980’s musical adaptation by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell, which the theater has produced three times previously. Under the direction of Joseph Discher and musical director Robert Long, the large cast plays multiple roles, keeps the story flowing, and the music and laughs coming.
Set in Thomas’s home town of Swansea, Wales, in the early 1900s when the author was a young boy, the story is simultaneously a celebration of small town childhood, family, and the season’s simple delights. However, the events of the play are different from those of Thomas’s original. No firefighting with snowballs in Mr. Prothero’s parlor, no caroling with a ghostly ancient, no face-off with a sugarfagged contemporary.
Instead, new scenes are created. When Dylan’s mother incinerates the Christmas turkey in her new gas oven, Auntie Bessie miraculously produces a turkey dinner from the hotel (available because of the timely cancellation of a Christmas party that one suspects was also Auntie Bessie’s doing). Brooks and Mitchell wrote many new lines to fit their expanded story and occasionally tried to replicate Thomas’s lyricism. I wish they hadn’t. “Thomas lite” is risky.
The aunts—Auntie Bessie (played by Tess Ammerman), Auntie Nelllie (Clemmie Evans), Auntie Hannah (Alison Weller), and Auntie Elieri (Carey Van Driest) are charming, with great singing voices. And Uncle Gwyn (John Ahlin), dour Uncle Tudyr (Patrick Toon), and relentlessly political Uncle Glyn (Andy Paterson) are perfect comic types. Dylan’s mother (Tina Stafford) is harried and musical, and his father (Peter Simon Hilton) delivers some of the poet’s most memorable lines. Also in the cast as the young Dylan’s annoying, cloying cousins are Cassandra Cushman and Alycia Kunkle.
Greg Jackson has a difficult challenge, playing both the adult and youthful Dylan. As an adult reminiscing about Christmases past, he’s great, but he rarely seems like a child. Most kids are perpetual motion machines. It doesn’t do to have him stand around, attentively listening while adults talk. He could sit, scratch his elbow, pull up his socks, retie his shoes, look distracted. When he’s with his pals—all also played by adults—Jim (Thomas Daniels), Jack (Julian Blake Gordon), and Tom (Seamus Mulcahy), and they are larking about, he’s perfectly believable. Jackson is a fine actor whom I’ve admired in other STNJ plays, so this casting or direction is somehow off.
That aside, the audience loved this production! While the Brooks/Mitchell play is both more and less than Thomas’s lyrical language and indelible images, you just have to go with it. It isn’t a production for the head, but for the heart, and I found myself smiling and laughing along, and you will too.
Production credits to Jonathan Wentz (a flexible single-set design; nice snow!); Rachel Gibney (lighting design); Steven Beckel (sound design); Tristan Raines (costumes); Stephen Gabis (dialect coach); and Denise Cardarelli (production stage manager).
For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the box office online. (Free tickets for kids 18 and younger.)