Talley’s Folly

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Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

By Philip Pearce

TALLEY’S FOLLY, Lanford Wilson’s two-character love story produced by Jewel Theatre Company and now on view at the Colligan Theater in Santa Cruz, is a blissful blend of stormy romance, hopeful negotiation and disarming dramatic discoveries.

Matt Friedman met Sally Talley a year ago and has ever since pestered her by mail and researched her from tidbits dropped by her up-market family. Unannounced, he shows up at her Missouri home, determined to persuade her to marry him. They are anything but a pair of star-crossed lovers. Sally is 31, prickly, standoffish and determinedly unmarried in a society where any girl worth her salt finds a husband well before she’s out of her twenties.  Matt is forty-something, an enthusiastic, bearded and determined suitor, barging in on a clan too prominent and Protestant to take kindly to him or his Jewish immigrant backstory.

He and Sally come face to face in the same rickety boathouse below the Talley’s hillside mansion where they parted a year ago. They spar and maneuver their way back through some intense and painful past events that have turned them, each in their own way, into social rejects. Secrets surface that seem daunting and uncomfortable but end up bringing them together after a 97-minute emotional roller coaster ride.

That 97-minute time limit is in our faces right from the start. Not unlike an abbreviated version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town stage manager, Christopher Reber as Matt Friedman tells us before the play begins that we’ll be out of our seats and on our way home in about an hour and a half. And, sure enough, come the fade-out, he sends us off with a reassuring look at his pocket watch just before the curtain call.

Talley’s Folly is one of a trilogy of plays Wilson wrote about the ups and downs of an over-privileged Missouri industrial family. It’s a prequel to The Fifth of July, written two years earlier but set 33 years later, when Sally has become a “not really batty but preoccupied” widowed aunt trying to decide what to do with the ashes of her late husband Matt. An actress listed in the 1978 program as Helen Stenborg reportedly begged Wilson for more backstory to flesh out her portrayal of the 69-year-old Sally. Talley’s Folly was the 1980 Pulitzer Prize winning result.

It’s a challenging show to produce. The very directness and simplicity of its structure make big demands on the production company. Until the final moments, every element of the story is some piece of memory pulled out of the past by Sally or Matt. Trainee playwrights are told to “show, not tell.” Wilson artfully thumbs his nose at that stricture by creating a seemingly mismatched couple who not only succeed in interesting us in their troubled memories but build up a compelling picture of their wartime world of the 1940s.
Jewel has cast two inspired performers in the lead parts.

Wilson’s script gives humor and excitement to Matt Friedman’s reminiscences by setting some of them in a succession of crazy but believable physical catastrophes that emphasize Matt’s status as an outsider. At one point, he is knocked over and bashed in the head by an avalanche of toppling boating gear. Undaunted, he finds some long abandoned ice skates and launches a lurching and ungainly dry-land ice skating lesson supervised by the more experienced Sally. Christopher Reber handles the pure athleticism of all this stage awkwardness with unflagging spirit and dazzling skill. Upright or floundering, his Matt is relentless, unfailingly hopeful and a treat to watch.

If Matt is the irresistible force in this romance, then the immoveable object is Sally. Faced with all that male enthusiasm, she teeters between a squeaky indignation and half-concealed flickers of interest which Matt detects and savors. Why, for instance, if she has really just come down all by herself to watch fireworks and hear a brass band across the lake, has she bothered to change from her nurse’s aide uniform into a party dress?  Sally doesn’t give anything away about that or other confusing hints from her past. Until she explodes in a puzzling rage at something Matt explains about his own past, she continues mysterious, reluctant, complex and intriguing in the hands of the gifted and beautiful Monica West.

The show is actually a collaboration between Jewel and the newly relocated Santa Cruz Shakespeare, whose artistic director Mike Ryan directs Wilson’s script with an assured eye to strong but always believable character conflict.

Rick Ortenblad’s set enhances the story by its very structure.  From the enclosed boathouse, a u-shaped double pier thrusts outward, its two arms providing twin platforms for the battling lovers. Between them is a rowboat that remains provocatively empty for nearly—but not quite—97 minutes.

Expect no mechanical sword play, gunfire or other flashy stage action. This is a character piece and a superb one. Even the climax is less a here-and-now event than a collision between two past secrets. It’s the sort of show you appreciate almost more when the 97 minutes have ticked by and you are thinking back on its riches as you drive home.