No one in the audience expected so much vigor, humor and emotion from a script-in-hand presentation of Dylan Thomas’ holiday classic, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
Equity Actors’ Readers’ Theater (EARTh) presented the piece at the Kansas City Public Library last Sunday, coinciding with a meeting of the FYI Book Club and enhancing the discussion of the work. Members of the acting company and audience members brought handwritten sheets of music, photographs and beloved copies of Thomas’ memory piece in book form, all providing additional insight.
A large crowd of readers clamored to respond to the first question: Why has this piece endured?
Claudia Grunewald of Kansas City was emphatic. “It’s the language. It’s beautiful,” she said. “I taught this piece to schoolchildren.” The writing, she said, has “a bright tone, and it’s easy to make pictures in your head of what is happening.”
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“It brings the people to life on the page,” said Lucy Silk of Shawnee. “You can see them, see their behavior and feel their joy.”
Doug Wyatt of Kansas City felt it was the subject matter. “‘Child’s Christmas’ is very much about family,” he said. “In this piece, Thomas’ entire world, although small, is built around family.”
“There are people of every age in it,” said Connie Zuck of Prairie Village. “Kids playing in the snow, the aunts gathered by the fire. It’s a parade of life. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Wales or in the U.S. or even a dry climate without snow.”
Several actors dropped in on the conversation, and readers were eager to hear their thoughts on the piece.
Kip Niven, the project coordinator for EARTh, said he created the script because, “I wanted to read it aloud for people. Last year’s script-in-hand performance was successful, and I thought maybe this could be a holiday show.”
“I did the adaptation and then it was really just a question of deciding whose voice does which piece. All the words are Dylan Thomas’. It was an easy adaptation and done with great love for my beloved grandfather.” Niven’s grandfather grew up in Thomas’ hometown of Swansea, Wales, and eventually emigrated to the U.S.
Readers talked about the differences between “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and other perennial holiday favorites, such as “A Visit From St. Nicolas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“This story is similar in feel to ‘A Christmas Story,’” which is set in 1940, said Zoann Merryfield of Shawnee. “There’s no fantasy involved. It requires a sense of nostalgia to appreciate. The other stories appeal more to children. Those stories don’t have a sense of nostalgia — the family and warmth of Christmases past.”
“This piece is not sentimental,” said Judith Brougham of Lenexa. “It’s tender and also unpredictable. That can be harder to get into for younger readers. It’s a true heartfelt story without any catchphrases like the other classics.”
Niven pointed out, “There’s no dramatic arc. There’s a flow of images and memories that is more literary than dramatic.”
One of the actors, Robert Gibby Brand of Kansas City, compared “A Christmas Carol” and “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” to “A Visit From St Nicholas,” noting, “So much of Dickens and Thomas is about the human being looking back on life, and that’s just not something you can do in eighth grade.”
Doug Weaver of Lawrence, the resident director of EARTh, said, “Every time I read it, I find something I’m not expecting and reflect on something different. But there’s one moment that grabs me every time. It’s the moment about the aunts who are not wanted and compared to worn tea cups and saucers. This wording makes Thomas brilliant. I tell the actors, every time you do this, you will find something new.”
Reader Larry Blake of Kansas City brought photos of the home Dylan Thomas lived in with his wife and son in Laugharne, Wales. Grunewald showed an edition of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” with illustrations by renowned children’s author and artist Trina Schart Hyman.
Karen Brown of Kearney brought a copy identical to the one that sat on her grandmother’s bookshelf.
Perhaps the most intriguing story came from Evan Ash, president of the St. David Society of Kansas City, which began as a benevolent group of Welsh immigrants.
He had heard a piece of Welsh music on a televised production of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Ash wanted to find the music for the Welsh society to use in a concert. After much searching of the internet, contact with a Canadian public broadcasting company and a college’s alumni association, Ash received in the mail a handwritten score.
“On to Bethlehem Town” is a traditional Welsh hymn, and it was arranged by Mary Syme, a retired professor of music, now in her late 80s.
“Every time a story is retold it is enriched,” Ash said. Readers agreed that “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” will endure without trouble.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email email@example.com. Look in the Arts+Culture section Jan. 27 for an introduction to the next selection, “The Museum of Modern Love” by Heather Rose.