The U.S. Premiere of
LAY ME DOWN SOFTLY
By Billy Roche
Directed by Kevin Christopher Fox
Performed at The Den Theatre
1333 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622
El Blue Line: Division or DamenApril 24 – May 25, 2014
Early 1960s. Delaney’s Traveling Roadshow tours the Irish countryside with bumper cars, bearded ladies, rifle ranges and the main attraction: the boxing ring. The Roadshow invites all comers to fight them to win a prize. Theo, the iron fisted patriarch, struggles to keep his crew in line and when his long abandoned daughter arrives, the patchwork family is thrown against the ropes.
Photos by Emily Schwartz
*Member of Actor’s Equity Association
From the Chicago Sun-Times
April 29, 2014
There is something in Chicago actors that makes them soar whenever they get their hands on an Irish play.
Maybe it’s the city’s immigrant inheritance and enduring working class edge. Or maybe there is something in the sheer blistering poetry and mordant humor of the writing they just can’t help but wrap themselves around. Whatever the reason, the latest example of how a wonderfully written play inspires a collection of superbly realized performances can be found in Seanachaí Theatre’s production of Billy’s Roche’s play, “Lay Me Down Softly.”
This tale of an itinerant “carnival/side show” that travels through Ireland, and features everything from fortune tellers and raffle booths to the main event — a boxing ring that prefers amateurs and wannabes over professionals — was written in 2008, a full generation after Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer” first came to the stage. But as it weaves the stories of six characters whose memories and desires intersect over the course of several months, it begins to feel a great deal like a younger, punchier, more kinetic cousin of that haunting play — a work, not incidentally, that remains a high point in Seanachaí’s history. And here, in its U.S. premiere under the exemplary direction of Kevin Christopher Fox, “Lay Me Down Softly” proves a real knockout.
The manager of the business at its center is Theo (Jeff Christian), a big, volatile, self-made guy who, years earlier, abandoned Joy, the bright, beguiling woman who is the mother of his now feisty, enchanting young daughter, Emer (Jamie L. Young), who has come for a visit.
Theo employs three men. Peadar (Michael Grant), is the sad, bearded fellow (“proud and lonely… a self-contained creature”), who has been with him from the start, was briefly a boxer himself, is now a trainer, and clearly was in love with the woman whose heart Theo broke. Dean (Matthew Isler), is a cocky young lightweight boxer with a short fuse and mediocre talent. And Junior (Dan Waller), also a boxer, has been sidelined by a foot injury (and perhaps by a crisis of confidence), and now works as a handyman ad sparring partner at the carnival. Watching over the box office is Theo’s girlfriend, Lily (Carolyn Klein), a brashly sexy, restless woman who is tough enough to go head-to-head with him, and is more than a little wary of Emer’s wiles. Theo and Lily are locked in a tempestuous relationship that erupts as if on schedule.
Junior, who shows every sign of becoming another downcast Peadar, is instantly drawn to Emer, and she to him. And the chemistry between Young and Waller generates the kind of heat you don’t often see on stage.
This is certainly not all that transpires here, but it suggests the essential catalytic elements at play. And the actors — each of them pure perfection, but also a model of ensemble synergy — not only live in the immediate moment of their characters’ lives, but magically suggest the years of rage, disappointment, frustration and loss that have made them who they are. (They also sustain their Irish accents with impressive skill, and when it comes time to do battle, John Tovar’s fight choreography and Al Ortiz’s boxing coaching deliver added authenticity.)
Joe Schermoly’s set — a ragged boxing ring and arcade entrance complete with turnstile — instantly captures the carny spirit, along with Beth Laske-Miller’s costumes, Julian Pike’s lighting and Stephen Ptacek’s sound. This production is a real beauty.
From Gaper’s Block
April 29, 2014
Playwright Billy Roche weaves a rough and intricate character study in Lay Me Down Softly, presented in its gristly, sawdust-laden glory by the SeanachaÍ Theatre Company through May 25.
Delaney’s Traveling Roadshow hits every Irish countryside skid with its troupe of fake bearded ladies, fake rifle ranges, and the high-profit item of fake boxing ring challenges. It’s the 1960s — somewhere else in the world, anyway. But for Theo (Jeff Christian) and his dysfunctional troupe of fools, the last 50 years never happened.
Theo is a real brute — and proud of it. Blisteringly portrayed by Christian, one’s imagination doesn’t have to go far to see a few manslaughters in his past, and perhaps a few in his future. It’s all about Theo, and he never lets anyone is his metaphorical or physical grip forget that yes, indeed it is all about Theo — and Theo’s money. He’s a one-man reign of terror, except with girlfriend Lilly (Carolyn Klein). It’s not that Lilly is his tender spot, it’s that Lilly is his female equivalent. Lily is a woman who uses her sexual power against anyone dumb and lonely enough to be responsive to her, particularly Dean (Matthew Isler), the tomato can who steps into the ring with the roadshow’s townie attendees paying for the privilege to test their longevity against a “real boxer” such as the perpetually sexually inappropriate Dean. Theo is an evil, jealous man, who rules with his real live iron fist, Dean taking most of the poundings that flow through this tale. Though Theo threatens Lilly with beatings for her infidelities and her petty thefts from the nightly take, Lilly stands proud, goading Theo publicly to “be a real man” and hit her, if only so she can lay waste to him. The voice of reason/Greek Chorus is Peadar (Michael Grant, bringing quiet sublime to the order-in-chaos role), who counsels and consoles the troupe members, wrapping bandages, be those bandages physical or emotional.
It’s all ordinary and everyday, only the towns change, when the roadshow finally comes full circle, and finds itself close enough to the sunspot that is Emer (Jaime Lynne Young), Theo’s late-teens daughter who shows up for some purpose — to see her father… to take something… to verify her mother’s recounts. Theo sees Emer as an extra set of hands, Lilly sees Emer as a threat, not to her romantic relationship with Theo (because there really isn’t any romance) but Lilly ominously senses “the girl” as a threat to the money being made — they’re making it, and here comes trouble in the form of back child support, which Theo has no shame publicly proclaiming that money was the reason he left baby Emer and her mother by the side of the road years before, with Paedar pulling a double shift as Emer’s mother’s comforter and Theo’s getaway from familial responsibility. Grant subtlely portrays Paedar as a man sickened with guilt for his activities all through the years, and his memory is long.
While Lilly flits and flings around the Roadshow, working Theo into a jealous rage, Emer sets her sites for Junior (Dan Waller — who’s done amazing work in supporting roles for several years in Chicago theater, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in front-and-center roles). Junior was once a real boxer, and a damned good one, but a foot injury sidelined him. Of course what comes with the love of a good woman? Her encouragement. Emer reminds Junior that he still has the moves, the stamina and the youth to fight the good fight in the ring — and anywhere he chooses. Why be a sparring partner to dumb talentless Dean when Junior could get back in the ring and rule?
Opportunity presents itself when a has-been but true professional boxer shows up night after night to beat the brakes off Dean. Dean ain’t no professional and these nightly pugilistic disasters are costing the roadshow big money in payouts. Emer, with the help of Paedar, convinces Theo to give Junior a chance: let a real boxer, even with a foot injury, fight a real boxer. Lilly is enraged at Theo for going along with Paedar and Emer’s suggestion — she wants Emer gone; Lilly can smell that something is not right, and they’re going to lose big time with Emer around, she warns Theo once more. The final decision to let Junior back in the ring comes when Dean challenges, well, everyone with vile words dipped in the kelly green of jealousy. He’s violently “demoted” to Junior’s former position and Junior does his thing in the ring, many times over many evenings — but as Lilly forewarned, the chickens come home to roost for Theo.
John Tovar choreographs the excellent fight scenes that play out well in Joe Schermoly’s realistically shanty set design. Eva Breneman’s dialect coaching serves to actors well, and they stay in character throughout the tense scenes. Young makes Emer’s transformation from the girl of the past into the calculating and confident woman of the present and future so smooth that Dean doesn’t know what hit him. Director Kevin Christopher Fox’s production is a great reminder that what’s abandoned on the side of the road may come back to haunt us when the wind shifts.
From Time Out Chicago
April 28, 2014
Happiness is an honest Irish yarn where you can drink beer in the theater. Lay Me Down Softly is about the denizens of a traveling carnival and their fighting tent, and though set in the early ’60s it is old-fashioned in style. The smell of wood and leather rolls off the boxing ring that dominates the stage, and the fortunes, of the makeshift family that runs it. The patriarch, Theo (Jeff Christian), and his old trainer, Peadar (Michael Grant), keep two young fighters in adequate shape to take on the amateur townsfolk who try their luck. When Theo’s abandoned daughter Emer (Jamie L. Young) appears at their door, he welcomes her to stick around — but her presence begins to alter their comfortable routine.
A cast that’s comedic and melancholic in equal measure charms and invites you to care about a story of small fortunes. It only takes a few minutes before we know the hierarchy of the troupe and the odd tics that define them. I’d believe the whole operation would fall apart if Theo couldn’t find a toothpick to gnaw, or if Junior (Dan Waller) couldn’t always fix the turnstile.
Billy Roche’s script defines the relationships and power between every combination of characters. The arrogant, giggling Dean (Matthew Isler) is the top boxer, but only because the almost-pro Junior has a bad leg to hold him back. They compete for the attention of Theo, who in turn competes for Emer’s, who in turn competes for Junior’s — while Theo’s girlfriend, Lily (Carolyn Klein), competes for attention from everyone. In a space defined by a single shoddy arena, each maneuvers to be his or her own protagonist. Continuous attempts to assert masculinity or femininity are humorously undercut by the outside world; when a former pro boxer comes to the carnival, the cast scrambles to banish him by any means necessary.
Lay Me Down Softly is a happy experience, with its Irish conversation and comical bids for center ring at the low end of the world. There are no apparent heroes or villains, just people wondering what victory means. Is it winning a fight? Is it falling in love? Is it not being where you are? Or is it being happy being nowhere?
Yet critically, the play maintains a subtle edge through its violence. With four trained fighters and two fierce women, there is always the possibility of blows. There’s idle talk over what each might fight for, and there are moments of chaos where ugly and pathetic anger has to be held in check. The longer the play goes, there’s no question in your mind: The story will turn on when that punch is finally thrown, and what it’s for. Lay Me Down Softly saves it for the right reason at the right moment. It turns out there was a hero among them, but you won’t know who until the end.
From the Chicago Tribune
April 28, 2014
In the pantheon of contemporary Irish playwrights, Billy Roche’s star has been eclipsed Stateside both by elder statesmen such as Brian Friel and younger masters of the craft, particularly Conor McPherson. Roche, best known for his late 1980s “Wexford Trilogy” (set in his hometown on Ireland’s eastern coast), got his U.S. premiere locally back in 1999 at the old Organic Theatre with “Belfry,” the last play in the trilogy, but hasn’t been produced much in these parts since.
And that’s a shame, at least judging from Seanachaí Theatre Company’s current U.S. premiere of Roche’s 2008 “Lay Me Down Softly,” which marked his return to playwriting after a long break. True, much of the action in this story of a hardscrabble traveling road show in 1960s rural Ireland occurs offstage — including two boxing matches that serve as the twin fulcrums driving the plot. Those looking for heightened moral and philosophical stakes, such as those underpinning McPherson’s brilliant “The Seafarer” (which got an outstanding production this past winter with Seanachaí) may feel as cheated as a patron at a shady sideshow.
But Kevin Christopher Fox’s direction and the nimble cast tease out a warm, bittersweet character study of people who are never entirely at home in their own skins, fearful of both commitment and of escape. And once you surrender to the rough-hewn rhythms of Roche’s Wexford locutions, the show works its charms slowly but surely.
Theo (Jeff Christian) is the hulking owner of Delaney’s Traveling Roadshow, which features a mix of rides and games of chance — including a challenge to “All Comers” (as the sign over the entrance to the Den space puts it) to put on the gloves and go a few rounds with young Dean (Matthew Isler), or “Killer Deano,” as he calls himself. The simultaneous arrivals of a former pro pugilist with the portentous name of “Joey Dempsey” (though the never-seen character is apparently not related to the American boxing legend) and Theo’s long-neglected teenage daughter, Emer (Jamie L. Young), put a wrench into Theo’s jury-rigged world.
Theo’s mistress/cashier, Lily (a deliciously tart-tongued Carolyn Klein) doesn’t trust Emer, but his “cut man,” Peadar (Michael Grant) harbors affection for the girl and guilt over the way he and Theo abandoned her mother, Joy, a would-be poet whose verse gives the play its title. Emer, meantime, takes a shine to Junior (Dan Waller), a boxer with a wounded Achilles heel who has to fight Dempsey once the latter has laid out the boastful Dean on the canvas.
Emer’s plans to run away with Junior provide the atmosphere of danger and deception lurking just outside the battered canvas walls of Joe Schermoly’s appropriately ragtag set, and the chemistry between Young’s sassy teen and Waller’s emotionally bruised Junior adds a fillip of eroticism to the grasping mercenary world ruled by Christian’s Theo with iron hands. (The way Christian chews at a perpetual toothpick suggests the restless appetites and violence churning at his innards.)
I’d argue that Roche does tend to toss around a few narrative red herrings, including an oft-mentioned but never-seen bookie. There are undeniable echoes of Friel’s “Faith Healer,” in which the title character, his wife and his manager all deliver monologues about their lives traveling through Irish backwaters. Grant’s Peadar in particular feels like a more choleric version of Friel’s good-hearted manager, Teddy.
But Roche allows his characters moments of self-reflection among the outbursts of rage, resentment and restlessness. In telling Emer about his own boxer father, Theo says “He was missing without leave — and yeah, I know it runs in the family. Like wooden legs.” In ruminating upon an image of a woman on a milk bottle from a dairy in her small hometown, Klein’s Lily notes that “She always looked like she might not be coming back” &mdash though these characters mostly seem trapped on the same circuit of diminished expectations.
If you’re looking for huge emotional payoffs, you too may find your expectations dashed here. But Roche’s mix of wary nostalgia and wry poetry gets a largely excellent workout that goes the distance with this Seanachaí ensemble.
From Chicago Stage Standard
April 28, 2014
Seanachaí Theatre Company consistently puts out good work, and their current play, the US premiere ofLay Me Down Softly by Billy Roche, is no exception. The play itself is good. There are a lot of loose ends in the play, most of which are very intriguing and thought provoking, but others felt unfinished. The characters in the play are nicely developed, and Seanachaí Theatre’s performance brings out the best in the play. This play allows you to escape for a bit, visiting a time and place very different than our current setting, and much more fun for the viewer. The Irish accents, the set of Delaney’s Traveling Road Show’s boxing ring, and the cultural reference of the time seamlessly transport the audience to 1960’s rural Ireland at a traveling road show.
Billy Roche’s Lay Me Down Softly follows a group of characters running Delaney’s Traveling Road Show. The main focus is their main attraction, boxing, when a daughter from the past and a professional boxer looking to enact revenge come to pay visit. This is a place of unfulfilled dreams, where family comes and goes, and loyalty can never be trusted. The world of boxing is very much the same way, and is the perfect setting for the human struggle that is told.
A depressing state, but a fun play for the audience. Kevin Christopher Fox’s direction brings out the reality in the play. At times there are conflicting actions happening on stage where your eyes don’t know where to watch, like when Dean (Matthew Isler) the boxer is working his punches on the heavy bag with Peadar (Michael Grant) and the boss Theo (Jeff Christian) is scuffling with his current wife Lily (Carolyn Klein), but rather than be too much or too busy Fox’s direction actually sucks you into the play more. It makes the scenes real and makes the viewer someone who is just peeping through a hole in the boxing arena tent.
The set designed by Joe Schermoly is uncomplicated, but pays great attention to detail from the process of how the ropes of the ring are hung, to the worn out old school heavy bag beat up from years of training. The surroundings are all covered in traveling side show tent material, and even the gaps used for stage exits are taken care of and constructed with fairground walls behind the tent’s opening. The simple yet very realistic set provides the strongest element sucking the view in and giving them that “fly on the wall” perspective. The props and Beth Laske-Miller’s costume design find creative ways to fully support the time, setting and personality of the play. They bridge the actors and set together enhancing the characters’ connection with the audience.
The acting is strong, delivering a terrific full ensemble performance. Every member of the ensemble created strong individual characters with depth and reason to care about them. It is the females in this play that stir the plot up, and these roles are filled by strong actors, especially Carolyn Klein, who has an extraordinary presence on stage. The actors also play a big role in transporting the audience to 1960’s rural Ireland. Their accents (perfectly understandable) and body language whisk you away to Delaney’s Traveling Road Show and let you watch the internal workings of friends, family and boxing.
From Sheridan Road
April 29, 2014
When it’s done well, theatre can totally transport you to another reality and time, letting you experience an existence completely different from your own. Seanachaí Theatre Company’s current production of Lay Me Down Softly is such a show. One truly feels like they have entered a rundown Irish sideshow, in the early 1960s, with this incisive offering.
Theo, the gruff owner of Delaney’s Traveling Roadshow, makes his living by inviting small town enthusiasts into the ring with his semi-professional fighters. Preoccupied with keeping his eye on his girlfriend, the lusty Lily, Theo is surprised by a visit from his teenage daughter, Emer. Emer soon begins a budding romance with Junior, the attraction’s lame handyman. But their nascent attraction is put to the test when a former boxing champion wounds Dean, the immature star of Theo’s outfit. Loyal Junior steps into the ring, determined to help out his employer, while the passionate Emer plots their grand escape.
Billy Roche, one of Ireland’s top playwrights, creates a truly believable, hard scrabble world here. Full of volatile emotions and quick violence, Roche also invests his dusty characters with humor and gently beating hearts. This is shown to grand effect with Peadar (played with nuance and soft regard by Michael Grant), Theo’s long term right hand man.
Accordingly, director Kevin Christopher Fox’s greatest achievement, with this piece, is the masterly layered performances that he ekes out of his established ensemble. Fox is assisted, greatly, by Beth Laske-Miller’s smart costuming choices, Julian Pike’s sharp lighting and Joe Schermoly’s effective set design. The songs that pour forth from the onset radio, also, richly detail the audience’s overall experience.
As Theo, Jeff Christian shades his blustering fits with pale shades of sentimentality. Carolyn Klein leavens Lily’s sharpened moxie with softer avenues of regret, as well. Junior and Emer’s initial attraction, meanwhile, is played with delicate tenderness by the particularly fine Dan Waller and Jamie L. Young. Lastly, Matthew Isler’s boisterous take on Dean allows for an ensemble of uncommon valor and a production worthy of all the acclaim that should be bestowed upon it.