Sunday, May 22, 2005

Talley's Folly (Ensemble Theatre)

‘TALLEY’S FOLLY’ gets good performance at Ensemble

The lights in the theatre are at full level. A male wanders onto the stage, looks around at what appears to be a fragmented old boat house, turns to the audience and tells us that the play we are about to see runs for ninety-seven minutes with no intermission. He relates that the story will unfold as a waltz, a valentine. “If all goes well,” he says, “the play will end with a romance.”

Thus, the tone is set for Ensemble Theatre’s production of ‘TALLEY’S FOLLY,’ Lanford Wilson’s two-person character study of one evening in the courtship of two unlikely lovers, Sally Talley and Matt Friedman.

First produced in 1979, the Broadway production, which starred Judd Hersch, won the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, and the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award. It was well received by critics and audiences and is considered one of Wilson’s most hopeful and affirming plays.

Wilson is noted for his Talley Family series. The first play, FIFTH OF JULY,’ takes place in 1977 and examines the changing mood of the country regarding war and capitalism. The second script, ‘TALLEY’S FOLLY’ was written by Wilson as an afterthought. The story goes that when the actress playing Sally in the original production of ‘FIFTH OF JULY’ asked Wilson for help in understanding her character. He wrote ‘TALLEY’S FOLLY’ to show how Sally and her husband Matt became a couple in 1944. Two years later Wilson added a third episode to the story, ‘TALLEY & SON.’

‘TALLEY’S FOLLY’ is a character, rather than a plot-driven play. It is a conversation, not an action saga.

Matt is a Jewish accountant. He is an immigrant whose early life consisted of changing countries, losing family members, and horrific emotional episodes from which he needs to protect himself. The experiences are so painful that when he does reveal them it is in allusions rather than directly relating the truth.

Sally is white, Methodist, wealthy, and reasonably attractive, but does not fit in with her family or community because she does not embrace the capitalism that has secured her family’s fortune. She has been fired as a Sunday school teacher for encouraging her students to think positively about labor unions. Perhaps most scandalous to her family, Sally is still unmarried at thirty-one.

As the play unfolds the duo reveal the painful secrets of their lives. Matt’s alienation and Sally’s desire to retain family ties are logically tied to Wilson himself. Born in Lebanon, Missouri, the town in which he set the Tally series, Wilson’s had few real roots. His parents divorced when he was five years old, and although he has described his youth as a happy time, he never had what he created for the Talley family: a permanent home with a stable extended family. Wilson is noted as never having really “fit in.”

The Ensemble production, under the direction of Lucia Colombi, is nicely paced. Thought talky, it maintains attention. Elizabeth Ann Townsend is excellent as Sally. She clearly creates a character caught with a secret she is compelled to hide. The character’s standoffishness, yet vulnerability are clearly developed.

Miller has more difficulty with his role. Forced to use an accent which comes and goes, he often gives the impression of still getting used to the lines and the characterization. His over-articulation and surface level awkwardness make the character unreal and wooden at times. If he drops the forced “sound” the character should grow as he becomes more comfortable with the lines.

A question arises for both the director and Miller. Was Miller’s wearing a wedding band an oversight? As the play developed the question arouse as to whether his “secret” was that he was really married or had a wife who died. Since it was neither, the ring was a major distraction. While on the subject of distractions, why were fake cigarettes used? If the actors were uncomfortable smoking, then drop the charade. There was no dramatic reason for the smoking and it added a dimension of unreality to a real situation.

Ron Newell’s shabby boat house set was excellent. On the other hand the lighting was distracting. The stage was much too dark. And the inconsistent band sound from across the lake often created confusion.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘TALLEY’S FOLLY’ is an interesting play which gets a nice production at Ensemble, greatly due to Elizabeth Ann Townsend’s fine performance. It is a production worth seeing.