Nobody does Irish better in L.A. than Theatre Banshee, proof positive which is now onstage as the award-winning troupe presents the West Coast Premiere of Billy Roche’s charming if minor Lay Me Down Softly.
Roche’s 2008 memory play takes us back to an early-1960s “traveling roadshow” called Delaney’s, a vagabond carnival offering village locals assorted sideshow attractions, the most notable of which is “The Academy,” a boxing competition which pits “All Comers” against the scrappy young Dean (Kevin Stidham), who though no champion himself, generally has no trouble knocking out whichever local dares join him in the ring.
Playwright Roche surrounds Dean with a ragtag bunch of carnies led by Theo (Andrew Graves), a onetime boxer with a checkered past. There’s also cutman Peadar (John McKenna), ticket girl Lily (Kacey Camp), and jack-of-all-trades Junior (Patrick Quinlan), who’d easily be The Academy’s star boxer had he not been sidelined by an unfortunate heel injury some time back.
Then comes the day when the fivesome find their steady if predictable lives overturned by the arrival of Emer (Kirsten Kollender), Theo’s budding beauty of a daughter come to reconnect with the father who abandoned her and her mother Joy years before, though not necessarily with the warmest of intentions.
A second arrival, that of the never seen Joey Dempsey, serves as a further catalyst to the action, since it would take a far stronger fighter than Dean to beat a real pro like Joey, someone like Junior, were it not for the pesky injury that keeps the bigger, brawnier boxer out of the ring.
With Emer’s arrival stirring up past wounds (and Joey’s likely to cause new ones), Lily’s jealousy aroused by Theo’s porcelain-skinned daughter (whose attraction to the hunky Junior is obviously mutual), and Peadar not up to his usual task of keeping everyone’s feathers smoothed, the lives of those traveling with Delaney’s Roadshow seem unlikely ever to be quite the same again.
Roche’s script keeps Lay Me Down Softly’s two big boxing matches offstage (though we do get to see Dean and Junior working out and sparring) and characters spend a good deal of time reminiscing in monolog form about the past, all of which prevents Roche’s drama from being as mesmerizing as the cast’s terrific performances would otherwise make it. Also, the combination of Irish accents (spot-on to this reviewer’s ears) and slang (often incomprehensible to those same ears) can prove distancing in a play where a lot gets talked about but not a lot “happens.”
Still, with actors as all-around splendid as these Banshees, direction as spot-on as Sean Branney’s, and an award-worthy scenic design that transforms the interior of Theatre Banshee’s Burbank home into an honest-to-goodness carnival tent (or the next best thing), Lay Me Down Softly proves another feather in the company’s many-feathered cap.
Best Lead Actor Scenie winners Quinlan and Stidham deliver electric, thoroughly believable performances as rival pugilists, each having clearly done his gym prep in addition to digging deep, Quinlan into Junior’s wounded, passionate soul and Stidham into Dean’s anger and frustration at being second best. Graves excels too as the powderkeg that is Theo, with McKenna doing equally strong work as the avuncular Peadar. Kollender could not be lovelier, feistier, or more appealing as Emer, while Camp vanishes to perfection into Lily’s sexy, sassy, high-heeled self. Understudy Jacob Lyle joins the cast at curtain calls as the talked-about but unseen amateur boxer Crowley.
Scenic designer Arthur MacBride does indeed work wonders inside Theatre Banshee, surrounding the audience with canvas draping and carnival lights and filling the stage with a great big boxing ring. Michèle Young’s costumes have a pitch-perfect period look just right for the ‘60s. The whole shebang, in fact, looks vintage, all the way to boxing gloves and punching bag. (Jon C. Marroone is property assistant.)
Design kudos go too to Bosco Flanagan’s topnotch lighting, Dave Snyder’s boxing-wound makeup, A. H. Leman’s graphics, fabrics, and specialty props, and an excellent, uncredited sound design. (The distant train whistle is as real as it gets.) Last but definitely not least is David C. Hernandez’s realistic-looking boxing/fight choreography, realistically executed by Quinlan and Stidham.
Lay Me Down Softly is produced by Leslie Baldwin and Branney. Andrew Leman is associate producer. Samantha Franco is stage manager and Dan Conroy technical director.
Though not nearly as compelling as last year’s Brendan, Lay Me Down Softly is nonetheless another winner for Theatre Banshee. Lovers of Irish theater will not want to miss it, and if you happen to love boxing as well, more’s the pleasure.
The Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia, Burbank.
July 19, 2014
Photos: Aidan Branney, Erin Noble, Michèle Young