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‘Lay Me Down Softly’ at Seanachai: Characters looking for a narrative in the Irish countryside

Submitted by on May 16, 2014 – 5:11 pm

Junior (Dan Waller, left) and Dean (Matthew Isler, right) are the boxers, and Theo (Jeff Christian) is the carnival boss. (Emily Schwartz)Review: “Lay Me Down Softly” by Billy Roche, produced by Seanachaí Theatre at The Den Theatre through May 25. ★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Billy Roche’s play of the Irish outback, “Lay Me Down Softly,” is a bit of a shaggy-dog story – and in the instance of Seanachaí Theatre’s dreary go at it, the emphasis is on the dog. 

The tale concerns a rag-tag carnival troupe that criss-crosses rural Ireland offering the usual mix of attractions for that sort of company, with the novelty of a boxer who takes on all comers. This shambling enterprise is run by a loud, rough lug of a man called Theo, whose retinue includes the fight trainer Peadar, the star boxer’s sparring mate Junior (who doubles as general maintenance man), and the boss’s girlfriend Lily, who also manages the ticket booth.

The boss's daughter Emer (Jamie L. Young) and Junior find romance in  'Lay Me Down Softly.' (Emily Schwartz)Each day and town is pretty much like the another until Theo’s teenage daughter from a failed marriage, Emer, shows up. Emer takes a liking to quiet, self-effacing Junior – just as circumstances catapult him into the ring to replace the suddenly, and grievously, indisposed boxer, Dean, whose most recent bout left him horizontal, multi-hued and needing a few days off.

As this stew of a story bubbles along, Theo (Jeff Christian) rants and blusters a lot, Lily (Carolyn Klein) snaps back and complains about life generally, Peadar the fight manager (Michael Grant) says little except to assuage Theo’s temper and our diffident hero-in-the-making Junior (Dan Waller) mostly avoids eye contact.

Mercifully, Matthew Isler as the carnival’s pugilistic headliner Dean brings some, well, punch to the doings. His modestly accompished fighter is almost pathologically cocky, convincingly athletic and really quite funny in a dangerous way. Instinctively, obsessively, he bounces around the empty ring and punches the air, punches a body bag outside the ring whenever he passes by and emits a steady, vaguely demonic chortle. He’s an interesting character, which makes him unique among these players under the watch of director Kevin Christopher Fox.

Down for the count, the carnival's headline boxer (Matthew Isler) gets a hand from Junior (Dan Waller). (Emily Schwartz)This boxer is just good enough to dispatch the local rubes who show up, though he’ll have no part of any fighter who resembles a professional. And that’s the crack in this opaque business where a shaft of narrative light breaks through.

Inevitably, the dread day comes when the boxer must face a real test. When his bell gets rung, it is laconic, rather simple Junior who steps up for the rematch in which boss man Theo expects to recoup his losses. Meanwhile, Theo’s spunky daughter Emer (Jamie L. Young) has fanned the banked fires of Junior’s manhood. Romance blossoms, albeit in remarkably tepid fashion.

As the empathic eye surveys this scene in search of someone to care about, it keeps stopping hopefully on Junior. There must be meaning in Waller’s sturdy, downcast silence, some dramatic potential, and Junior is clearly being ushered into the center of the ring, so to speak. The eye’s reading is not wrong, but it is unfulfilled.  Junior scores a triumph of spirit and grit, but not of dramatic impetus.

Boss Theo (Jeff Christian) and girlfriend Lily (Carolyn Klein) always seem to be in the ring. (Emily Schwartz)Except for Isler’s charmingly maniacal boxer, who ends up as a sort of narrative red herring, there isn’t enough substance or energy in the rest of this gang to rouse the imagination. Nor are Junior and Emer exactly a rural Romeo and Juliet. What light through yonder window breaks? Actually, it’s the window that’s broken.

I liked this show best for its technical elements: Joe Schermoly’s roughhewn boxing ring and much-pummeled body bag, Julian Pike’s lighting, Beth Laske-Miller’s blend of costumes. Not sure what corners of Ireland (or Illinois) the actors’ sundry dialects represented. They were oddly emblematic of this entire effort: scattered.

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