Jewel Theatre Company concludes its 2015-16 season on a wistful note with Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly.
Although not so razzle-dazzle a property as some of JTC’s previous season-enders, Wilson’s play is a fitting closer for this most transitional of seasons, in which the company moved from its previous incarnation at the tiny Center Stage downtown to a revitalized new one at the Colligan Theater at the Tannery.
Wilson’s gently humorous two-character drama also deals with transition from one stage of life to the next. A co-production between JTC and Santa Cruz Shakespeare, directed with sensitivity by Mike Ryan, the play is an offbeat—and at times, oddly charming—courtship between a man and a woman beyond the first blush of youth belatedly coming to terms, against all odds, with the possibility of love.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize when it was first produced in 1980, the play is set at the end of World War II. Yet its view of “otherness” in a homogenous society, and the immigrant experience—particularly the persecuted desperately seeking a better life—remain timely. The play can be a bit problematic in other ways, however, especially for those unfamiliar with Wilson’s other two plays about the Talley family. References to offstage characters and family dynamics make us feel at times that we’re not getting the whole story.
Talley’s Folly takes place in 1944, in a dilapidated old boathouse (the “folly” of the title) on a lake in Missouri. (Nicely evoked in Rick Ortenblad’s busy, atmospheric set, complete with boats, a pier, a gingerbread roofline, and curtains of hanging green water plants.) Looking somewhat out-of-place is Matt Friedman (Christopher Reber), fastidiously dressed in his three-piece brown suit, fedora, and spectacles.
A Jewish accountant from St. Louis, Matt has come to this moonlit, rural Midwestern outpost with one purpose: to visit Sally, daughter of the well-to-do Talley family that lives on the hill overlooking the lake. “This is a waltz,” he tells the audience of his plan to reconnect with Sally. Chased off by Sally’s brother and his friends, Matt awaits her return from work in the boathouse, where the two of them apparently spent a week together the previous summer.
But when she comes home from her job as a nurse’s aide in a hospital, tending the war-wounded, Sally (Monica West) is more angry than eager to see him. She can’t believe he presented himself to her conservative, xenophobic family, and tries to give him the brush-off, but he won’t take “no” for an answer. Or rather, as he tells her, if she did tell him “no,” he would take it. But for all her hand-wringing and high dudgeon, she never quite tells him outright there is no hope for them. And through this loophole, Matt slips in to reasonably and respectfully plead his case.
If you’re going to spend 97 minutes (no intermission) with only two characters, the audience had better feel invested in them. JTC stalwart Reber delivers wry, witty charm as Matt; his centerpiece story of his refugee family’s escape from Eastern Europe for the (false) promise of safety in the West is an expertly timed comic riff that’s also heartbreaking. It takes a bit longer to warm up to Sally, simply because, like Matt, we don’t understand why she’s so angsty, but West plays her with affecting poise.
The 42-year-old, never-married Matt, and 31-year-old borderline spinster Sally have much to reveal and accept in themselves and each other as the story plays out. Still, some plot points are a bit sketchy, like what exactly happened in the boathouse last summer, and how, and who the various Talleys are up on the hill who are so often talked about, but never seen onstage. Also, that Matt addresses the audience at the beginning—especially when he repeats the entire first page or two of his opening remarks, in double time—doesn’t serve any useful purpose. Still, this is a strong production of a play whose virtues are more thoughtful than dynamic.
The Jewel Theatre Company’s production of ‘Talley’s Folly’ plays through May 29 at the Colligan Theater at the Tannery. For ticket information call 425-7506, or visit jeweltheatre.net.