Irish Theater Comes to the Fringe with Lay Me Down Softly
Over the last few years, Irish Heritage Theatre has dedicated itself to presenting selections from the rich legacy of theater created in Ireland or Irish Americans. The company completed a multiyear production of Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy, staged a compilation of short plays by Irish women, and put on an acclaimed version of Brian Friel’s Making History. IHT’s newest offering, Billy Roche’s 2008 boxing drama Lay Me Down Softly, marks the company’s first entry into the Fringe Festival.
FringeArts spoke to Kirsten Quinn (actor and producer) and Peggy Mecham (director and producer) of IHT about what they like about Roche’s play and why they thought it would be right for the Fringe Festival.
FringeArts: What was your introduction to Lay Me Down Softy?
Peggy Mecham: The first time I read Lay Me Down Softly was during an afternoon marathon session of reading Irish plays. It was quite entertaining and suddenly I was confronted by a play that was jarring, but in a rather quiet and unexpected way.
Kirsten Quinn: When I read the piece after Peggy sent it to me, I had just finished reading a stack of character analyses from my students. It was quite serendipitous, as I was confronted with a group of characters who aren’t really represented that often on stage. Here I was, reading some really in depth answers to Uta Hagen’s nine questions, and I started answering those questions as I read the play. Although it is not explicit in the script, I felt that my character, Lily, the ringmaster’s paramour, is someone who has continually been subjected to mental and physical abuse at the hands of an overbearing, controlling man. She is not portrayed as a victim, however, nor is she always a sympathetic figure. She lashes out at others, perhaps in response to her own lack of control. No one is who they seem in this play, and I really appreciate that.
FringeArts: What moved you about it? Why is it right for the IHT?
Irish Heritage Theatre: The complex relationships of the characters and the danger hidden in their neediness is very compelling. The play is set in 1962 in rural Ireland and each of the characters is marginalized from the social culture and place. The Irish Heritage Theatre is really committed to exploring Irish theater, not just producing the classics (although we love those too). This play is raw and the characters are rough, and living lives as outsiders. They are deeply troubled and dissatisfied with their positions in society.
FringeArts: Why did you think the show was right for the Fringe Festival? Why now?
Irish Heritage Theatre: The Fringe is about what it means to be outside of conventional norms. We thought it would be cathartic to explore how going against the grain or society’s conventions impacts the lives of individuals who identify as outsiders.
Our current society is fraught with anxiety and uncertainty about the future. There is turmoil and strife. Immigrant populations are being targeted, minorities are being targeted, those who are progressive and more open-minded are feeling threatened and at times hopeless. Fear is now the norm for those on the fringes of society and even for those who are not (in this current political climate). Lay Me Down Softly looks at people who are misunderstood, marginalized, and who identify as underdogs. They are struggling to make money in order to survive. They are desperate for equilibrium and security in a world where there is none. While politics in the conventional sense do not play a role in the play, there is the politics of the group, of the microcosm. Even the unwanted are trying to push out those who come from the outside. Even those who claim to be family put others in danger in order to maintain their own livelihoods.
FringeArts: What themes do you want to bring out in the show? Is there a message you want to convey?
Irish Heritage Theatre: The play concerns the marginalization of those outside of traditional cultural norms and the difficulties that causes for the characters in relating to each other. We hope that our work will be strong enough to leave an impact on each audience member and that they will be able to connect the work to their own experiences or observations of the human condition. So the message or messages of the play are really open for interpretation. Some questions might be: What does it mean to be a father? A father figure? What risks are we willing to take to ensure our future? Who or what are we willing to sacrifice in order to help ourselves? Is there a way out of a negative or dangerous situation that will leave others unscathed? What does it mean to be an underdog? Can an underdog be a hero, villain, or both? Perhaps the message is “Never underestimate the power of desperate circumstances.”
FringeArts: Should art be understood or experienced?
Irish Heritage Theatre: Ideally, it should be both. For our company, we are more interested in presenting work that will be understood through the experience. Irish theater is rather extraordinary in how richly and deeply it explicates human experience. It reaches far beyond the little Island from which it hails. The language is powerful and contains both comedy and tragedy. Characters are fully developed and ensemble is inherent. At first, a play may simply seem to be a character study, but as the audience watches and takes everything in, as the audience experiences the work, they hopefully come away with a greater understanding of the human condition and the universality of what it means to be on the fringes of society. This may be a play about boxing on one level, but in the end, it is really a play about how alliances are formed, and how sometimes individual needs eclipse the needs of others. We often think of Rocky as an American example of the quintessential boxing movie. (How apt that it occurs in Philadelphia, a city that is always perceived as the underdog…GO EAGLES!). There are actually very few boxing scenes in Rocky and there are only a few in Lay Me Down Softly. Most of the boxing is left to the imagination. And in fact, the pro boxer in the play is never even seen. In the end, both stories are about the characters. Rocky is not about winning, but about “going the distance”. Lay Me Down Softly is about doing whatever it takes to survive, even if it means ignoring what is morally right.
FringeArts: Why does Plays & Players suit the show?
Irish Heritage Theatre: Plays & Players is the perfect venue for this production because it is one of the most traditional performance spaces in Philadelphia and the characters in our play are trying to find their way in a traditional world. The juxtaposition of a boxing ring and circus tent on a proscenium stage will help intensify that tension. This expansive set would not be possible in other smaller venues.
FringeArts: What else are you looking forward to this Fringe Festival?
Irish Heritage Theatre: There are so many great offerings in the Fringe. We suppose if we had to pick a couple, they would be The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium’s Eccentricities of a Nightingale by Tennessee Williams and Diana Lobontiu in Sfânta. Both works are exploring themes similar to what we are investigating in Lay Me Down Softly and it will be interesting to see what is similar and what is divergent.
What: Lay Me Down Softly
When: August 30 – September 15, 2018
Where: Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place
Created by Irish Heritage Theatre
For tickets to performances before September 5, visit irishheritagetheatre.org.