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Billy Roche’s Lay Me Down Softly is rarely produced, and it’s easy to see why. A sketch of amateur boxing in rural Ireland in the 1950s, the play’s extensive character studies are vague and its plot is nearly nonexistent.
A young girl, Emer (Katie Stahl), visits Theo (Ethan Lipkin), the father who abandoned her as a child to pursue the road life and sideshow boxing. It might be expected that Emer has an issue to resolve, but in Roche’s drama the relationship has no stakes, and Emer largely spends her time eliciting long, expositional monologues from other characters.
The script’s particular problems are compounded by Peggy Mecham’s directing, which does nothing to add tension. Instead, Mecham muddies an already opaque story with unmotivated blocking. Actors are doomed to pick up objects and put them down again in a pantomime of work that is frustratingly purposeless.
Chris Madden and Rick Miller’s set also doesn’t allow much room to play. A large booth, although never used, looms in a dominant position stage left. Without personal effects in the tent, it’s hard to imagine that these people spend as much time there as they seem to do. While props show a careful attention to detail and historical accuracy, it’s not enough to create a sense of place.
Irish accents have also been carefully attended to and the wide range of voices with precise diction is a pleasure to hear, particularly Brian Anthony Wilson’s Peadar.
The production is dominated by Wilson, a compelling actor whose expressive face reveals a subtle inner life for Peadar, albeit one of Wilson’s own creation. A longtime Philadelphia performer, he’s able to overcome the limitations of the script and his blocking by refusing to act without reason, and by giving steady, gentle focus to his fellow cast members.
Kirsten Quinn’s Lily, Theo’s bored, cruel wife, brings energy to the stage, but she’s working against her costume (costumes are also designed by Mecham). Lily is trapped in the men’s world and desperate enough for attention to stir up trouble, but Quinn looks like a perfect pinup with no evidence of roughness around the character’s edges.
Wilson, Quinn, and the other performers give their all. They keep up the pace, but they have too much to work against between Roche’s storyless script and Mecham’s visionless direction.
To read Mark Cofta's review, click here.
What, When, Where
Lay Me Down Softly. By Billy Roche, Peggy Mecham directed. Irish Heritage Theatre. Through September 15, 2018, at the Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
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