BWW Reviews: TALLEY'S FOLLY Past Its Prime
Written by Lanford Wilson, Directed by Kyle Fabel; Scenic Designer, Randall Parsons; Costume Designer, Deb Newhall; Lighting Designer, Paul Hackenmuller; Sound Designer, Jason E. Weber; Stage Manager, Bree Sherry
CAST: Benim Foster, Kathleen Wise
Performances through April 13 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org
Merrimack Repertory Theatre cranks up the way back machine to transport the audience to Lebanon, Missouri, on July 4, 1944, in Lanford Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Talley's Folly. Thanks to Randall Parsons' evocative design of the crumbling old boathouse, Paul Hackenmuller's romantic lighting streaming through the slats, and sweet dance music wafting in from across the lake, courtesy of Sound Designer Jason E. Weber, it feels like we have been plunked down on the Talley's rural farm in the last of the war years. However, like Matt Friedman's old Plymouth that has a history of running out of gas, Talley's Folly chugs along on fumes, despite the best efforts of all parties.
Friedman (Benim Foster) is an immigrant German Jewish accountant who resides in St. Louis, yet has a decidedly East Coast world view. He opens the play with a folksy, fourth wall-breaking speech to the audience (reminiscent of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town) to tell us what has led up to this moment and what he hopes will transpire in the next 97 minutes, if all goes as planned. The houselights gradually dim to signal the official start of the play and Matt is joined onstage by Sally Talley (Kathleen Wise), the Gentile object of his affection. Although she has lived her entire life in Lebanon, she and her family have a Southern sensibility, prompting Matt to deliver one of the best lines in the script: "Sally, I've been all over the country, and there is New York City, isolated neighborhoods in Boston, and, believe me, the rest is all the South."
For the next hour and a half, they go back and forth in an effort to clarify their past, the nature of their relationship, and the potential for a shared future. He speaks in anecdotes and jokes, a stream of shtick that does not amuse Sally and, with his accent and inflection, edges dangerously close to stereotype. Matt's strengths are his doggedness, his intelligence, and his unconditional love for her. Although she seems resolved to reject the latter and all but tells him to go jump in the nearby lake, Sally dost protest too much. After all, she donned a new dress for the occasion and hangs around the boathouse for the duration, even though she keeps threatening to leave while he verbally batters her.
It is never clear to me what these two characters see in each other, except that they spent a (mostly) pleasant week together during a courtship the previous summer. They are both fish out of water; he lost most of his family in the war in Europe and she is a liberal, unmarried woman who is a disappointment to her prominent, conservative family. However, the foundation of their attraction needs to be something more than their shared wounds in order to be credible. Foster and Wise both get inside their characters as individuals, but they lack the necessary spark to create chemistry between them. I think they'd have better luck if there were more action or they were not confined to the three walls of the boathouse. Director Kyle Fabel tries to keep things as lively as possible, but there's only so much one can do with blocking if the story leaves you in irons, to borrow a sailing metaphor.
Overall, MRT's production of Talley's Folly is well done, boosted immensely by the design elements which have been strong throughout this 2013-2014 season. However, despite its being considered an American classic by some, it feels both dated and slight, more a 97-minute scene that could be reduced than a play. An unlikely love story will always be fodder for the stage, but the dramatic conflict feels manufactured and the outcome is predictable. Wilson likes his characters and they are tenderly drawn, but you don't get diamonds without crushing pressure and intense heat.
Photo credit: Meghan Moore (Kathleen Wise, Benim Foster)