By Joseph Hurley
A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES, by Dylan Thomas. Starring Pauline Flanagan. Directed by Charlotte Moore. At the Irish Repertory Theatre. Through Dec. 23.
THE BIG POTATO, by Macdara Mac Uibh Aille. Starring Laura James Flynn. An Irish Arts Center production in New York City elementary schools during the holiday season.
New York’s primary Irish-oriented theaters generally put their best feet forward during the holidays, and this wounded and difficult year is no exception.
The Irish Repertory Theatre has a new production of its lovely musically enhanced version of Dylan Thomas’s immortal seasonal treat, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” while the Irish Arts Center has been touring the city’s schools with an inventive little show about the famine called “The Big Potato.”
The Rep, of course, has done “Child’s Christmas” in the past, but perhaps never before quite this wonderfully. Nor has it had quite the emotional fullness now throbbing through the group’s cozy Studio Theatre.
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Somehow, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” a seemingly flawless literary work of the greatest possible integrity, comes off a little darker and a bit deeper at the end of a year that contained the events of Sept 11.
The child who was to become Dylan Thomas pleads for a Christmas “exactly like the last one,” and, in this altered world, we know that wish won’t come true.
The Irish Rep’s treatment of the late Welsh poet’s small-scale domestic classic lasts barely 45 minutes, but it is as passionate and rewarding as anything you’re likely to encounter on any New York stage, thanks to Charlotte Moore’s subtle direction, and, even more, to the grace and insight she’s brought to bear in the matter of casting the beloved, slight-seeming but actually quite subtly complicated work.
Heading the cast of the production, which will play through the 23rd of the month, is the redoubtable Pauline Flanagan, just returned from Ireland, where she starred in the Abbey Theatre’s production of Tom Murphy’s “Baileganguaire,” staged for the 2001 Dublin Theatre Festival.
Only a year ago, Flanagan won London’s Laurence Olivier Award as supporting actress in Frank McGuinness’ new play, “Dolly West’s Kitchen.”
Alongside the actress in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” are Dublin-born Colin Lane, John Leighton, soprano Jayne Lynch, Rep man-of-all-music Rusty Magee and his 10-year-old son, Nathaniel.
Magee Sr. will, as he has done so often in the past, take care of all things musical from his perch at the piano on a stage dominated by lighted, decorated Christmas trees and a phalanx of scarlet poinsettias.
The Irish Rep’s Thomas revival is a creature of warm lighting washing over handsome actors decked out in formal attire and positioned before music stands holding scripts they don’t really need to use.
Despite the glow, however, world events have cast a certain elusive resonance over “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and given it a sadness it somehow seems not to have manifested in earlier incarnations.
The familiar references are all in place, certainly. We hear of a deceased aunt “no longer whinnying with us” and of a “tin policeman made in Hong Kong,” and less easily recognized ones, too, as we hear of “lava bread” and a variety of holiday candy called “Swansea rock,” among other treats.
Thomas “child” still longs for a tangerine in the toe of his stocking, and a magician’s kit that does “real magic, not just tricks.” Director Moore and her splendid cast provide that magic in abundance.
Meanwhile, on its mainstage, the Rep’s richly enjoyable musical version of Dion Boucicault’s “The Streets of New York,” with its sterling component of gifted young singing actors, has extended its run through Jan. 20.