The charm of the Irish Heritage Theatre lies in choosing plays that evoke an atmosphere, often of a world long gone, a heritage filled with complex characters and juicy linguistic texture. In Billy Roche's wispy play Lay Me Down Softly, the company, co-producing with Plays & Players, seems to have painted itself into a corner. With none of the above charms on offer, I found that by the end of Act One, I was still asking myself, "What is this play about?"
It's 1962. We're at a fairgrounds somewhere in rural Ireland. Taking up most of the stage is a makeshift amateur boxing arena, where all comers are welcome to fight with either handsome Junior (Lee Stover ), who limps, or Dean (Dan McGlaughlin), who goofs around and eats popcorn. Their trainer, Peader (Brian Anthony Wilson), seems to have the most interesting past; this is likely due to Wilson's theatrical command of the character and his ability to suggest an inner life. Everybody else seems as flat as an illustration.
Theo (Ethan Lipkin) runs the traveling show, and he is a pompous boss with a hotsy-totsy, mouthy girlfriend (Kirsten Quinn). Theo's teenage daughter, Emer (Katie Stahl), turns up, and a romance predictably develops between her and Junior.
There are offstage characters — a bookie, a fortune-teller — we hear about in smatterings but never meet, and their purpose in the narrative remains obscure. Much of the dialogue is built on reminiscence: old grudges, old loves, old betrayals. When Emer decides to run away on the milk train (with embarrassing "choo-choos") after stealing the money that is the evening's take, we don't know why, nor is there any reason we should root for her escape. In fact, motive of any sort in this plot is in short supply.
Oddly for a play about boxing, we don't see any; there's some impressive jumping rope, some sparring, some push-ups, but other than some fine sashaying by Kirsten Quinn, there isn't much physical action on this cluttered stage. Peggy Mecham's direction seems to have allowed all the energy to leak away.
At one point, Peader softly sings the beginning of a song, "Lay me down softly…," which, since it provides the title of the play, would seem likely to mean something or invite interpretation, but if it did, it eluded me.