On the surface Lanford Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley's Folly is a simple valentine, a Missouri waltz as tranquil as the unseen river that flows past the frou-frou boathouse where the story plays out. But once you're able to peer past the bucolic moonlight, this one-act, two-character romance exposes itself as a theatrical obstacle course.
The text is littered with references to offstage characters we never meet and about whom we never care. At pivotal moments the plot resorts to the most irritatingly oblique kind of storytelling. So it's to the credit of everyone involved that the current New Jewish Theatre production comes off as well as it does.
A bit of background: Three decades ago Lanford Wilson wrote 5th of July, which is set on farm in the Ozarks near Wilson's hometown of Lebanon. In order to better know his characters, the playwright fabricated histories for the farm's occupants. He decided that Sally Friedman, a 67-year-old widow, had been courted on the farm by a citified Jewish accountant during World War II. In time Wilson wanted to know more about that courtship. Thus, in 1979 Talley's Folly was born.
But Wilson is a complex writer. Even though he has described this play as "sweet and soft-bellied," it's not. It shares the forlorn sensibilities that pervade Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie -- which debuted in 1944, the same year this play is set. Both plays are girded by the politics of war. While Menagerie builds to the celebrated "gentleman caller" scene in Act Two, Wilson's entire play concerns a gentleman caller. In an era of gas rationing, Matt Friedman has driven all the way down from St. Louis to woo Sally Talley, who is cut from the same cloth as Menagerie's painfully shy Laura. Sally is not so acutely bashful (she was once a cheerleader). Nevertheless, sewn into the fabric of both plays is an abiding appreciation for the terror of loneliness.
But here is an essential difference between the two scripts. Although both begin with monologues delivered directly to the audience, Williams' opening speech ("I have tricks in my pocket") is simply an entryway into the drama. But in Wilson's Folly, Matt's opening speech is a gauntlet; many a production has died aborning before Sally ever made her entrance. One of the great pleasures of this mounting is to watch Will Ledbetter get the best of that opening speech. Throughout the 97-minute evening, his Matt is measured and thoughtful. He never rushes the role. (Forget the fact that Ledbetter does a lousy Bogart imitation; mimicry aside, this is fine work.)
If Matt is the playwright's creation, then Sally is the playwright's voice. She's the one who mouths most of the Ozark-isms that only Wilson could write. Yet ironically Sally is the tougher role, because -- in the early minutes, anyway -- there's so little for an actress to cling to. But the moment Wilson provides Sally with some toeholds, Michelle Hand grasps them with the ferocity of someone scaling a sheer cliff face. By evening's end her Sally is revealed as a woman of intense need. Perhaps the highest compliment one can pay to Ledbetter, Hand and director (and RFT theater critic) Deanna Jent is to state that, for a welcome change, this two-character play is about two characters.
The scenic design by Dunsi Dai -- a suggestion of an old Victorian-style boathouse, evocatively lit by Andy Ottoson -- possesses a quaint loveliness. Yet at the same time, a viewer might be confused as to just where the river flows. Is the rowboat in the water or on shore? When Sally steps off the dock, isn't she in the river? Best not to concern yourself with logistical matters, for they take your focus off the text, which a viewer cannot afford to do, even for an instant. Wilson's writing requires total concentration.
Here's a typical example of his singular style: When Matt describes the decrepit boathouse, he tells the audience, "It isn't bombed out, it's rundown, and the difference is all the difference." It's the differences, likewise, that set Talley's Folly apart from a more conventional romance. Differences in the characters' religious and cultural backgrounds, differences in the blatantly artificial way in which Wilson chooses to tell his tale. But if you like a dash of "different" in your theater, this quirky tale of two would-be lovers should provide a rewarding evening.