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Dylan Thomas’ Memories of Christmas

A Child’s Christmas in Wales returns, coproduced by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre

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Stephen Libby plays Dylan Thomas and Adam Freeman Young Dylan in A Child’s Christmas in Wales, at the BCA Plaza Theatre through December 23. Photos by Jay Zawacki

What would Christmas be without mom and dad arguing over where to put the tree, drunk relatives bursting into song, and the eternal wait to open presents? What would it be without that one mystery gift, buried in the corner and wrapped in unusual paper, sender unknown?

All those elements and more converge in Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, a stage adaptation of the scribe’s classic autobiographical prose poem, now back in Boston for the holiday season and running through December 23 at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre. The play, produced by BU’s Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and Boston Children’s Theatre, and adapted for the stage by playwright Burgess Clark, is fast emerging as a must-see holiday tradition after winning over audiences and critics in its 2009 inaugural Boston production.

A Child’s Christmas is set in the sleepy coastal town of Swansea, Wales, in December 1923, when Thomas was just a boy of nine. “December in my memory is white as Lapland,” he recalls in the opening scene. But even with the sweeping hills and farmhouse parlors, the tweed caps and plum pudding, the play effortlessly transcends Thomas’ nostalgic look back at childhood, with a cast of characters that would be as believable in present-day suburban Michigan as in Thomas’ 1920’s Celtic hometown. This is an adaptation that evokes all the absurd hilarity of family holidays, but also the quiet wonder of Christmas through boyhood eyes—the memory of snow falling and time seeming literally to stand still.

Young Dylan (above) and Auntie Dosie (below), played by Meagan Hawkes.

“The reason that Thomas’ original tale has had the deep, lasting resonance it’s had all these years is because it speaks to the universal experience of Christmas,” says Clark, a 30-year theater veteran and Boston Children’s Theatre artistic director. “No matter what culture or background you come from, we’ve all had those Christmas experiences, and that’s what I’m trying to tap into.”

In Thomas’ snow-covered world, there’s the tender, fussing mother, the cantankerous schoolteacher father, the odd, soft-spoken spinster aunt, the loud and clumsy older sister. And at the heart of the story, two Dylan Thomases take center stage—the grown man in 1952, reliving Christmas in flashback, and the mischievous boy in 1923, too young to understand how a curious package delivered by the postman will shape his destiny. Returning this year along with most of the original cast is a young Dylan played by 10-year-old Adam Freeman, whose performance last year won rave reviews.

“The exchanges that the two Dylans share are among my favorite moments in the play, and it’s what I love about live theater,” Clark says. “It gives you the freedom to bend time and character by presenting an emotional arc rather than a literal progression. We all wish we could recognize significant moments in our lives while we are living them, and the adult Dylan offers the opportunity to revisit and relive the most significant Christmas of his life.”

Thomas’ memoir, written in 1955 and famously recorded by the author for radio audiences, is timeless storytelling at its best. But it’s a story of emotion and recollection, with no real narrative thread anchoring it. That poses a particular challenge for a theater production, says Kate Snodgrass (GRS’90), Boston Playwrights’ Theatre artistic director.

“It’s a wonderful retelling of the Dylan Thomas story, because it really preserves the essence of what Thomas was writing about and captures that flavor, but it also frames it within a dramatic story,” says Snodgrass, who runs the Creative Writing Program’s playwriting program. “There’s always going to be A Christmas Carol, there’s always going to be The Nutcracker. But this is really different. And because it’s showing at the Plaza Theatre, which is such an intimate space, you feel like you’re peering into a conversation happening in your own living room.”

For the past seven years, Snodgrass and Clark have collaborated on projects for young playwrights, including an annual playwrights festival and workshops in Boston-area schools. “We’re always looking at telling stories through the eyes of children,” Snodgrass says. “That’s one thing this play does really beautifully, because this play is actually about a young writer.”

A Child’s Christmas in Wales is playing through December 23 (no Monday performances) at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St., Boston. General admission is $40; admission for students is $28. Evening and matinee shows are available. Purchase tickets here or by calling 617-933-8600.

Francie Latour can be reached at comiskey@bu.edu.

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