In the pantheon of contemporary Irish playwrights, Billy Roche's star has been eclipsed Stateside both by elder statesmen such as Brian Friel and younger masters of the craft, particularly Conor McPherson. Roche, best known for his late 1980s "Wexford Trilogy" (set in his hometown on Ireland's eastern coast), got his U.S. premiere locally back in 1999 at the old Organic Theatre with "Belfry," the last play in the trilogy, but hasn't been produced much in these parts since.
And that's a shame, at least judging from Seanachai Theatre Company's current U.S. premiere of Roche's 2008 "Lay Me Down Softly," which marked his return to playwriting after a long break. True, much of the action in this story of a hardscrabble traveling road show in 1960s rural Ireland occurs offstage — including two boxing matches that serve as the twin fulcrums driving the plot. Those looking for heightened moral and philosophical stakes, such as those underpinning McPherson's brilliant "The Seafarer" (which got an outstanding production this past winter with Seanachai) may feel as cheated as a patron at a shady sideshow.
But Kevin Christopher Fox's direction and the nimble cast tease out a warm, bittersweet character study of people who are never entirely at home in their own skins, fearful of both commitment and of escape. And once you surrender to the rough-hewn rhythms of Roche's Wexford locutions, the show works its charms slowly but surely.
Theo (Jeff Christian) is the hulking owner of Delaney's Traveling Roadshow, which features a mix of rides and games of chance — including a challenge to "All Comers" (as the sign over the entrance to the Den space puts it) to put on the gloves and go a few rounds with young Dean (Matthew Isler), or "Killer Deano," as he calls himself. The simultaneous arrivals of a former pro pugilist with the portentous name of "Joey Dempsey" (though the never-seen character is apparently not related to the American boxing legend) and Theo's long-neglected teenage daughter, Emer (Jamie L. Young), put a wrench into Theo's jury-rigged world.
Theo's mistress/cashier, Lily (a deliciously tart-tongued Carolyn Klein) doesn't trust Emer, but his "cut man," Peadar (Michael Grant) harbors affection for the girl and guilt over the way he and Theo abandoned her mother, Joy, a would-be poet whose verse gives the play its title. Emer, meantime, takes a shine to Junior (Dan Waller), a boxer with a wounded Achilles heel who has to fight Dempsey once the latter has laid out the boastful Dean on the canvas.
Emer's plans to run away with Junior provide the atmosphere of danger and deception lurking just outside the battered canvas walls of Joe Schermoly's appropriately ragtag set, and the chemistry between Young's sassy teen and Waller's emotionally bruised Junior adds a fillip of eroticism to the grasping mercenary world ruled by Christian's Theo with iron hands. (The way Christian chews at a perpetual toothpick suggests the restless appetites and violence churning at his innards.)
I'd argue that Roche does tend to toss around a few narrative red herrings, including an oft-mentioned but never-seen bookie. There are undeniable echoes of Friel's "Faith Healer," in which the title character, his wife and his manager all deliver monologues about their lives traveling through Irish backwaters. Grant's Peadar in particular feels like a more choleric version of Friel's good-hearted manager, Teddy.
But Roche allows his characters moments of self-reflection among the outbursts of rage, resentment and restlessness. In telling Emer about his own boxer father, Theo says "He was missing without leave — and yeah, I know it runs in the family. Like wooden legs." In ruminating upon an image of a woman on a milk bottle from a dairy in her small hometown, Klein's Lily notes that "She always looked like she might not be coming back" — though these characters mostly seem trapped on the same circuit of diminished expectations.
If you're looking for huge emotional payoffs, you too may find your expectations dashed here. But Roche's mix of wary nostalgia and wry poetry gets a largely excellent workout that goes the distance with this Seanachai ensemble.
When: Through May 25
Where: The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $26-$30 at 866-811-4111 or seanachai.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun