Talley's Folly is a play about love. Because it's a two-character play set in 1944 in the rural central Missouri town of Lebanon, it's convenient to believe it's about falling in love. If you're not paying attention, that's what you'll leave believing it's about — and you'll leave happy. Matt Friedman, a fortyish Jewish immigrant, and Sally Talley, a 31-year-old Christian Missourian, meet in a dilapidated boathouse on the Talley property to debate the thornier points of their relationship — will they or won't they fall in love?
But playwright Lanford Wilson is a better draftsman than that, and director Deanna Jent knows it. Jent, and Shaun Sheley (Matt), and Meghan Maguire (Sally), are all dead certain from the moment Sheley strides on the meticulously crafted stage (courtesy of scenic designer Jason Coale, who included willow tendrils and a mysteriously floating boat in a dry theater) that these two lonely people are deeply and hopefully in love with each other. What keeps us hanging on for 93 minutes is the slowly unraveling mystery of why Matt and Sally don't love themselves enough to surrender to the relationship.
Of the two, Matt seems to have apprehended that the solution to his loneliness lies in answering this question. Sheley gives Matt a peppy, professional cheerfulness that masks his deeper pains. A fan of rhetoric and methodical problem-solving, Matt gives the early impression that he has all of this emotional stuff figured out. He banters with Sally, trying to spin her off the main topic — her anti-Semitic, conservative family and how they'd put two barrels of buckshot in his tuchus if they knew he was still on the property — and into a discussion of where they are as a couple, and particularly, what Sally thinks of him.
Maguire plays Sally with the pragmatic toughness of someone who has long struggled against the current. She stares wild-eyed at Matt when he skips blithely toward his first attempt at a marriage proposal and then scrunches those eyes down to slits when she almost broaches it. She's crafty in defense as well, always turning the conversation back to Matt: What's his big secret? Why won't he even tell her where he was born? It is 1944, and fears of Communists and Socialists and all other -ists (save capitalists) are matters of national security.
And so the two feint and thrust, circling each other like cagey knife fighters but never stepping inside the other's gyre. Get too close and you'll get hurt in this game of love — but the strange thing about Talley's Folly is that all of the wounds are self-inflicted. The longer Matt and Sally skirt each other's secrets, the more obvious it becomes they save their most damaging blows for themselves.
Sally, conveniently, is a nurse, and they do make the worst patients. Accountants aren't known for their emotional acumen, either. And yet both of them eventually step across their own invisible, self-set boundaries in service of the other person. When it happens, it's as quiet as the dawn and just as beautiful.
Talley's Folly is an actor's play. Shaun Sheley and Meghan Maguire are indeed actor's actors; they each fight their own private internal war, and every blow is evident on face and in form. If the finale were not so gentle, it would be murder. Instead, it's the beginning of life's great adventure.