In his opening monologue, suitor Matt Friedman informs us that the action about to unfold in Talley's Folly "should be a waltz, one-two-three, one-two-three; a no-holds-barred romantic story." And the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' production of Lanford WilsIon's play delivers on that promise, enfolding the audience tenderly in its arms, wooing us with its lyricism and grand emotional sweep. Although modest in scale and setting -- two former lovers meet in a decaying boathouse in rural Lebanon, Mo., on July 4, 1944, to confront both past and future -- Talley's Folly deftly mixes humor with real-life horror, ranges widely through politics and history, intelligently addresses issues of class, gender, race, religion and economics, and constructs an elaborate metaphoric foundation on which to build its deceptively simple structure. But, at heart, Talley's Folly is a love story -- a moving, optimistic and undeniably sentimental romance.
Matt (Geoffrey Cantor), a fortyish Jewish immigrant of indeterminate European background now living in St. Louis, is half of the would-be couple; the other is Sally Talley (Kelly McAndrew), an independent-minded, college-educated Lebanon native still stuck, at the old-maid age of 31, in the oppressively conservative home of her judgmental and well-to-do family. The previous year, the vacationing Matt had paired up with Sally for a glorious weeklong idyll, but when he attempted to continue the relationship long-distance, Sally rebuffed him without explanation. The visit that the play chronicles is Matt's full-court-press effort to overcome Sally's stubborn resistance by solving the mystery behind her rejection and by revealing his own dark secrets.
A play as intimate as Talley's Folly is especially dependent on its actors to carry the audience through the narrative -- if they fail to connect, there's not much left to entertain us (although John Lee Beatty's ornately filigreed boathouse set, lighting designer Dennis Parichy's subtle evocations of sunset and moonlight, and Chuck London's canny simulations of countryside sounds offer their distinct pleasures). The two-person cast largely succeeds in hoisting the burden, but McAndrew sometimes staggers. The character as drawn by Wilson is partially to blame: Sally's rejection of Matt -- compounded by her evasiveness -- can be as frustrating to us as it is to her thwarted swain. Sally's the rock and Matt the waves pounding over it, but the erosion of her position proceeds so slowly that we think of her as hard and unyielding. McAndrew needs to show the fissured cracks in her personality; we need to see more vulnerability, to recognize what attracts Matt to her. McAndrew does that on occasion -- in the delightful "ice-skating" sequence, when her guard briefly drops, and in her moments of laughter -- but the performance lacks modulation, leaning too heavily on anger. And her rage is particularly puzzling given Cantor's irresistibly charming Matt, so funny and glib and self-aware.
Matt, of course, is at an advantage: He's spent a year in St. Louis overcoming his own doubts, and he's finally ready to abandon the past and embrace "prosperity." Through Sally, he makes reluctant peace with his life in America: "You live in such a beautiful country," he says before correcting himself. "Such a beautiful countryside." But where Matt sees beauty, Sally sees only barrenness ("It isn't particularly fertile," she harshly observes), and she fears leaving the world -- at once circumscribed and comfortable -- represented by the once-grand, now-rotting boathouse. It's therefore deeply satisfying when Matt at last succeeds in opening Sally's eyes to the future's possibilities.
Talley's Folly has its faults -- Sally and Matt's secrets dovetail a bit too neatly, Sally's climactic revelation lacks contemporary resonance and the postmodern framing device seems an intellectual fig leaf designed to cover embarrassment over the play's naked emotionalism. But despite a few awkward missteps, the play's romantic dance is touching and lovely.