Bill Gale reviews "A Child's Christmas" at The Gamm

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Yes, Virginia, there was a poet - a glorious poet - called Dylan before the one who re-named himself Bob Dylan came along. The elder Dylan exists as surely as great writing and a rollicking, drinking man's lifestyle carries on.

We speak of that Welsh man of letters and roistering, love and infidelity, Dylan Thomas, who exemplified the idea of living fast and dying young.

From a combination, probably, of disease and alcoholism, Thomas died in New York in 1953 just short of his 40th birthday. But in his short life, he wrote some of the finest poetry and prose of the 20th century. Today, perhaps his best known work is "A Child's Christmas in Wales," an emotional look back at "flying streets" filled with snow, celebrations fueled by wine and ardor.

At the Gamm, artistic director Tony Estrella has run with the text of "A Child's Christmas" creating a look, a fascinating snapshot, really, of the man Dylan Thomas himself.

On stage in an intermission-less 90 or so minutes Estrella creates a world and man through the potent drive and singing of Gamm mainstay Tom Gleadow. He, and a fine supporting cast, create a remembrance of times past that will resonate for many in the present.

True enough, this "Child's Christmas" does take a while to get going. When we first see Gleadow as Dylan he's winding up a night of boozing presumably at Manhattan's famed literary watering hole, the White Horse Tavern. Gleadow, all round, and frizzy-haired, loud and happy and sad at once, gives you an immediate look at Dylan Thomas, a man too forceful to live long.

Then, Estrella's new version sashays back to Wales in the 1920s and we have Thomas as a boy, still played by Gleadow, and it's a little hard to get with that. But as this both light and serious piece moves on you can't fail to enjoy its high spirits, its quick view of a man of great talents, great struggles.

The shenanigans are highlights. An impish Wendy Overly shows us a staggering, smiling, red-faced darling, Auntie Hannah, as she consumes copious amounts of wine, and port and "sings like a big-bosumed thrush" in Thomas's felicitous phrase.

Amanda Ruggerio is graceful and quick as a young girl watching the adults with wide-eyed wonder. And Gleadow's own son, Max, eventually arrives as Dylan-as-a-boy. He has clearly inheirted his father's talent. There's great timing and, you suspect, an inherent knowledge of what's funny in this chip off the old block. So, filled with song, performed in English and Welch Welsh, with humor and sadness side-by-side, this biographical "A Child's Christmas in Wales" works quite well. Estrella has had the guts to end with Dylan Thomas's prophetic cry, "do not go gently into that good night. Rage, rage at the dying of the light. "

It's a tough-minded ending to a Christmas story. But it's also real and strong. And the Gamm, to its credit, rarely flinches at giving us theater willing to look life directly in the eye.

EDITOR'S NOTE: "A Child's Christmas in Wales" continues at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket through December 26th. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for WRNI.

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