It is 1944. We find ourselves in an old boathouse that has become ramshackle but still bears traces of the whimsical gazebo the builder, “Whistler” Talley, incorporated in its design. Matt Friedman (Shaun Sheley) enters and introduces himself.
He tells us he has 93 minutes in which to tell his story, for which he now sets the scene. Then he repeats it all only faster before the object of his affection, Sally Talley (Meghan Maguire) shows up. We hear her before we see her, and she doesn’t sound very happy to encounter Matt for reasons that unfold gradually throughout this, yes, 93-minute show.
Deanna Jent has directed her actors to lovely, textured performances as two lost souls who almost seem destined to have found each other. But in the beginning, only Matt seems to know it. As the 42-year-old accountant from St. Louis visiting Sally’s home in Lebanon, MO, he is alternately friendly and cold, funny and serious, gentle and a bit of a bully. Sally is 31, an old maid by the standards of her day and with World War II not quite over, she lacks prospects. She works as a nurse’s aide in a hospital in Springfield treating wounded soldiers. She is sensible, or at least thinks she is, not a romantic like Matt, and she has given up on her own future. Can Matt change her mind and get through her defenses to bring out the woman who wants desperately to be loved? Well, since this play has been billed as a Valentine for the holidays, it gives nothing away to say that of course he does. It isn’t the end that matters here; however, it is the journey.
Lanford Wilson’s play was first produced in 1980 and won both the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It is often revived, though I hadn’t seen it in close to 30 years, and time has changed how I feel about the play itself, to some extent at least, but not my admiration for the total immersion the two actors have to achieve in their roles to maintain our interest; Maguire and Sheley are up to the challenge. In the 21st century, an insistent suitor like Matt might be perceived as a stalker of sorts. He brought Sally home from a dance the year before and they dated for a week. He is Jewish, she is not, and after she introduced him to her family, the objections were so vociferous that she decided not to continue the relationship. Still, he wrote to her almost daily. He visited the hospital at one point, and when told she wasn’t there that day, he waited anyway. So, by now, he has essentially forced this meeting.
As it happens, he does know best in this situation and Sally is her own worst emotional enemy. But it takes some pretty strong persuasion including a bit of manhandling that didn’t set as well with me as it did 30 years ago (when I probably didn’t even notice it), but Sally isn’t timid about fighting back, so that helps alleviate my discomfort with their physical interactions. Both tell their life stories to the other, and it is clear that during their brief relationship in the past, they had not been honest about what they have lived through to get to this point.
The boathouse set designed by Jason Coale is remarkable, and Nathan Schroeder’s lights enhance it. Matt is natty in a well-tailored suit and a new tie bought special for this occasion, and Sally’s protests are weakened by the fact that she has bothered to change from her work uniform to a new dress before coming out to meet him. Michele Friedman Siler has the two looking period perfect. It’s an attractive set and Maguire and Sheley are a pretty couple.
I may not love Talley’s Folly as I once did, but I certainly do admire this production because of the talents of those who made it happen. It is especially good to see Maguire back on stage. It’s been a while, and she has been missed.
Talley’s Folly runs through December 23, 2012. You may visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.
By ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT
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