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Theatre Tue Apr 29 2014
(left to right) Dan Waller, Carolyn Klein, Michael Grant and Jamie L. Young in Lay Me Down Softly Photo by Emily Schwartz.
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.