Pulitzer Prize winner Lanford Wilson wrote dozens of plays, many of them becoming contemporary theater classics, in a career that spanned nearly four decades. His eclectic body of work encompassed the personal and the political, bringing to life mainstream characters and outsiders. One of his great achievements was his “Talley trilogy” – Talley’s Folly (the one that won the 1980 Pulitzer), Talley & Son and Fifth of July.
Palm Beach Dramaworks has built a reputation and an avid, loyal audience (4,300 subscribers and counting) in part for its artistic team’s skill at bringing American stage classics to life. Dramaworks’ new production of Talley’s Folly, now launching the company’s second season in its larger yet still intimate home on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, is a perfect example of what this theater does so well.
Talley’s Folly is a two-hander, a play in which one of its two characters cheerfully breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience what is about to unfold: a life-changing evening played out in 97 minutes. In Brechtian fashion, the words of Matt Friedman (Brian Wallace), a Jewish accountant based in St. Louis, describe how he hopes to use the tools of theater – the onstage woods and willow branches framing a dilapidated, once-fanciful boathouse; a moon supplied by the lighting designer – to win his girl’s hand in marriage.
Sally Talley (Erin Joy Schmidt), the object of his ardor and his efforts, doesn’t cooperate nearly as well as the designers do. A “spinster” at 31, she has accepted that she’ll never marry. On this night of July 4, 1944, she’s still living at the family home in Lebanon, Mo., while working with wounded soldiers as a nurse. But though she and Matt had a short fling when he visited her picturesque home town the summer before, and though he has written to her every day since, she has no intention of saying yes to his proposal.
In fact, Sally is highly agitated at Matt’s unexpected appearance. Her wealthy, prejudiced family wouldn’t dream of “allowing” her to marry someone so different, not to mention a man 11 years her senior. But Matt, like Sally, is stubborn.
Talley’s Folly involves the revelation of secrets and the peeling away of fears. That Matt and Sally, despite their differences, happen to be perfect for each other is arguably a dramatic contrivance on Wilson’s part. But the power of this often-contentious love story is as magical as that designer-supplied moonlight.
Ron Burns gets the credit for the mood-setting lighting, while sound designer Matt Corey works his own reliable magic. Michael Amico’s artfully ramshackle boathouse set becomes a decaying playground for the production’s two fine actors.
Both deliver energetic, layered performances under the skillful direction of J. Barry Lewis. Wallace finds the funny, driven exterior of a man who has lost everything but itsn’t about to let his unexpected chance at happiness slip away. Schmidt, though outfitted in a particularly unfortunate print dress by costume designer Brian O’Keefe, makes quicksilver shifts from discomfort to anger to glimmering thoughts of what “yes” might mean.
Talley’s Folly is, as Matt observes, a kind of theatrical valentine. Thanks to Wallace and Schmidt, director Lewis and the Dramaworks’ team, Wilson’s beautifully crafted play is an irresistible ode to taking a chance on love.