Talley’s Folly takes place in a decaying Victorian boathouse on the night of July 4, 1944 in Lebanon, Missouri. Matt Friedman (played by Shaun Sheley) a Jewish accountant from St Louis, comes to propose to Sally Talley, a free-spirited "southern" girl chafing under conservative home rule, whom he had fallen in love with a year earlier. It is a play about releasing secrets and allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to chose love.
When you enter the theater for the New Jewish Theater’s production of Talley’s Folly, you are immediately drawn into the "folly", the boathouse "constructed of louvers, and lattices and gee-gaws," as Matt tells us in the play. In the hands of Jason Coale, Scott Schoonover and Jerry Russo (scenic designer, artist and technical director, respectively) the boathouse is exquisitely crafted and functions almost as a third character in the play, establishing the romance of the play. It is so large you really feel as though you are sitting in the boathouse with Matt and Sally. There are small, delightful details in Peggy Knock’s props, cattails rising between the planks of the dock and the Pevely milk box, which links us to St Louis.
Nathan Schroeder’s lights deserve mentioning. In the 93 minute play, he takes us from a warm, luxuriant golden hour, to a flaming sunset, a touch of the blue hour and moonlight, and does it all with sumptuous restraint. The set and the lights make a beautiful backdrop for Lanford Wilson’s lyrical script. Often his twists of phrase put me in mind of Tennesse Williams and both Sheley and Maguire do a nice job of finding the poetry in the words. Sheley, in particular, gets to explore accents and verbal wordplay that gives his role its layered nuance.
Sheley’s Matt Friedman starts with a monologue played directly to the audience, which gives us some exposition and a clue into Matt’s charming, witty banter. I thought Sheley had a nice grip on Matt’s charm, his humor more gentle than borscht belt and he was sweetly, doggedly determined to persevere. Meghan Maguire is a beautiful woman; her Sally, a spinster at 31, is sweet and beautiful which encourages us to wonder, along with Matt, why she isn’t yet married. Trying to propose marriage while deciphering her changeable moods, Matt reveals his secret and she, hers. Once they release those secrets, there is room for the vulnerability and love.
It is a sweet, romantic play, billed as a "Valentine" by director Deanna Jent. It is a play about misfits and outcasts trying to find their place in the world, as are all Wilson’s plays, fueled by his own experience of being gay in 1950’s rural Missouri. But most of all, it’s a play about characters, about Matt and Sally and their ability or inability to get beyond their secrets and find love. Whether due to some aimless meandering in the blocking, or the fact that it was a Sunday matinee, when the energy is always different, Maguire seemed to be missing some nuances in the character’s layers and there was a holding back of energy or focus. Sheley and Maguire are good actors, and I wanted to see a bit more chemistry between them. Even their kiss was chaste and unsatisfactory.
One of the drawbacks of a play done on a thrust, with the audience on three sides, is sightline. To accommodate this challenge, a director works to continually move the actors so no one side of the audience gets all the "face." In this play, you also want distance between the characters to highlight their isolation but I found myself wishing they would sit down more often, look at each other and talk to each other rather than shouting their secrets across the water.
Ultimately this is a sweet, charming romance that is perfect holiday fare, and personally, I love a happy ending where the shikse gets the nice Jewish boy. Talley’s Folly continues through Dec. 23.
Elsewhere in town, Stray Dog Theatre continues Fully Committed through Dec 22nd and The Foreigner at the Rep continues through the 23rd.