Set in the boxing tent of a traveling roadshow in the Irish midlands, Billy Roche's bittersweet slice-of-life drama, "Lay Me Down Softly," at Theatre Banshee in Burbank, takes place over three days in 1960.
At each of the carnival-like show's tour stops, its star attraction, cocky young boxer Dean, takes on challengers from the local area.
The play opens with Dean (Kevin Stidham, compact and fit), still wired from his win the night before, and bragging about the damage he inflicted on his opponent to his unimpressed cohorts Peadar (John McKenna), shy handyman Junior (Patrick Quinlan), and Lily (Kacey Camp), roadshow boss Theo's brassy live-in girlfriend.
Word that a ringer related to the target of Dean's drubbing is the next challenger is good news to penny-pinching Theo (Andrew Graves), who sees it as a money-making attraction. Dean caves at fighting a pro, and Junior, a one-time welterweight of some small note, with a career-ending but now nearly healed Achilles injury, is recruited after a trial bout with another local, Crowley (Jacob Lyle).
(This is the only onstage boxing scene and it is deftly choreographed by David C. Hernandez, and believably executed by Quinlan and Lyle. The production's impact would be considerably weaker without it.)
Meanwhile, Theo's runaway daughter, Emer (Kirsten Kollender), turns up. It's been 15 years since Theo abandoned her mother and she wants some answers. With her febrile energy and delicate prettiness, nicely played by Kollender, Emer shakes up the dysfunctional status quo, pairs off with Junior and sparks Peadar's memory of a tender encounter that followed her mother's abandonment. (It's an encounter that gives the play its name.)
Camp's strutting, gum-snapping Lily, heavily made up and voluptuous in tight dresses, high heels and capris (both Camp and costume designer Michéle Young had some fun here), is threatened by Emer's presence and determined to remain the queen of this small, male-dominated world, even as she goads jealous Theo with her blatant flirtations.
For Roche, it is evocative storytelling, rather than action, that is key here. As each character has his or her say, director Sean Branney and his fine cast movingly convey the harsh realities have spurred these clashing personalities to adopt their rough-and-tumble life on the road, and the underlying vulnerabilities that keep them there.
Peadar is the enigma. An ex-boxer and astute boxing coach, he is seemingly content to remain in a subservient role in the company's hierarchy. Yet there is a hint of abandoned dreams in Peadar's clear-eyed observation of all that happens in the shabby, hermetic environment, and in his noteworthy performance, McKenna gives Peadar a stillness seemingly born of physical and moral strength. It is hard to imagine the play without this quiet, intelligent center.
Kudos to set designer Arthur MacBride, who has turned the small, black box Banshee theater into a shabby carnival tent, with slightly raised boxing ring, punching bag and other well-used equipment, table and chairs. Utilitarian hanging lamps, a single bulb on a cord and strings of lights around the tent interior complement Bosco Flanagan's sturdy lighting design. The uncredited sound design with hurdy-gurdy music and an evocative train whistle in the distance adds to the carnival atmosphere (as does the aroma from the popcorn machine in the lobby).