By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

“Lady Lay,” a new play by Lydia Stryk, is having its American premiere at the studio theatre at 7 Stages and will run through May 19.

It is a tone poem of personal liberation, inspired by the music and words of Bob Dylan and the fall the Berlin Wall in 1989.  The play is directed by Heidi S. Howard, who reminds us that “our process of creating together, breaking down walls, and finding freedom is the exciting part of our ride in life.”

I realize that all this may sound a bit highfalutin; but my companion that evening wisely reminded me that often the best poetry bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the heart.  I also think that an awareness of that truism may enhance your enjoyment of “Lady Lay.”

The premise of the play couldn’t be simpler:  Marianne (Stacy Melich) is a young government worker in a dreary West Berlin employment office at a time when there really isn’t any employment.  She knows it, but she’s devised several aphorisms to soothe and lull the senses of the applicants she sees; when these fail, she has a Kleenex box handy to mechanically dispense tissues.  On the wall is the saying “Work Sets You Free”; these words, as you may know, greeted people at the gates of Auschwitz and other concentration camps.  Not cheery.

But Marianne is experiencing an awakening; she has fallen under the influence of the art and message of Bob Dylan.  When the student is ready, the teacher will appear, as they say; and Dylan (played by 7 Stages’ former Artistic Director Del Hamilton—a casting coup) appears and offers encouragement and tidbits of inspiration to Marianne (“Why wait any longer for the world to begin?”).

“Lady Lay” (from Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay”—but you knew that) is not a musical, but there is music; it is performed by Jed Drummond (the music director), and ensemble cast members Tara Ochs, Faye Allen (7 Stages co-founder), and Olubajo Sonubi.  Such Dylan classics as “I Shall Be Released,” “Desolation Row,” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” are used very effectively as accompanying lietmotifs.

As Marianne undergoes a transformation and becomes quite empathetic to her job applicants (while planning a move to America), the set is having a field day.  That’s right:  the set.  Scenic designer Nadia Morgan has used wit and imagination and gradually, the drab, East German-looking room gets perky doses of improvements.  The flies (the area above the stage) in particular begin raining down props, books, and all sorts of handy accoutrement.  From the wings, beds and other items are whisked instantly into view and use.  This is very fine and carefully rehearsed stagecraft.

Ms. Melich’s lovely and finely calibrated performance anchors the evening—kudos to her.  In addition, this is newly-named Artistic Director Ms. Howard’s premier effort as director, and she has more than done herself proud; her work in “Lady Lay” bodes well for 7 Stages’ future.  I also think her choice of the intimate black box theatre was a wise one; this show reminds me of some of the best plays I’ve seen off-Broadway in New York.

The play is not compellingly dramatic, but it grows on one:  It has a kind of wistful urging about it that hints of the intoxication of freedom.  A line by another composer (Kristofferson) made famous by another singer (Janis Joplin) kept coming to mind (sorry, Mr. Dylan):  “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

For more information and tickets, visit 7stages.org.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.