Ted Sod: Why did you want to direct Talley's Folly?
Michael Wilson: Having produced Lanford's penultimate play, Book of Days, in its East Coast premiere as Artistic Director of Hartford Stage, I was very curious some 14 years later to explore his work as a director. When I re-read the play, I was struck by its pervasive humor, truthful simplicity, and (not always) quiet heartbreak. There was one moment, however, about half way through the play when I knew I had to direct the play: Matt is bearing down on Sally as to why she has never married at her age. Lanford writes: "A long pause. Sally tried to speak and can't." Finally, she manages: "There's time...enough...for...(Pause.)". Matt has hit his target, but at a cost. Suddenly, any sentimental associations I had ascribed to the play fell away. Here were two real middle aged people groping in the dark to see if the other might possibly be a light that would obliterate The Shadows of their painful past and offer a desperately needed hope for the future.
TS: What draws you to the work of Lanford Wilson?
MW: I was ten years old growing up in rural North Carolina, which is not that different in temperament than Lanford's rural Lebanon, Missouri, when ABC debuted a new series on Friday nights called Hot'l Baltimore. Each episode had a disclaimer cautioning the viewer of the show's mature themes. I vividly remember a character sauntering into the hotel lobby with only a chocolate chip in her navel, her private parts blacked out by network censors. Following The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, this was an utterly fantastic vision to me. It completely contrasted television's traditional and carefully constructed view of American life, as producer Norman Lear had done with other shows such as my all time favorite, All in the Family. Only this show was based on Lanford's hit play which had been running Off-Broadway for two years, and would continue to run for another year after the series was cancelled. I was fascinated both by the depth of Lanford's humanity, his sympathy for these derelict drifters of the Hotel Baltimore, but also impressed by the powerful reach of his storytelling.
TS: What are the challenges of directing a two-person play like Talley's Folly?
MW: There are a number of challenges, but I think the hardest thing is how to maintain a truthful, dramatic tension between the two characters throughout the play. Larger cast plays have the benefit of characters sweeping in from time to time, changing the life, the rhythm, the pulse of a play. Here, you have to mine the play's inherent dynamism, and give it visual variety and find its tonal shifts with only two players. It can be done - it must be done-but the work is very concentrated, and by nature, very specific to each second in the 97-minute play.
TS: What do you think the play is about? What do you think Wilson is saying to audiences about life in the Midwest circa 1944? How do you think his feelings about his home in Lebanon, Missouri inform this play?
MW: Talley's Folly is first and foremost a love story. Lanford has written that he wanted the play to be like one of those romantic films of the 1930s and early 1940s: "gentle and bright." But his genesis for writing Talley's Folly was in response to an actor's question she had about her character's history while rehearsing his Tony Award nominated political play of social unrest,Fifth of July. The late Helen Stenborg [mother of Roundabout Resident Director Doug Hughes] was playing Sally Talley in 1977, now 33 years older than the character is in Talley's Folly, and wanted to know what Matt had been like, what he looked like, sounded like. In answering her question, he was sketching the outline for what would become Talley's Folly.
Fifth of July had sprung from Lanford's frustration at our country's complacency in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. Lanford was angry and dismayed that the activism and energy from the protest movements of the 60s and 70s were being dissolved by carefully crafted corporate campaigns that he felt were woefully dishonest, designed to quell any lingering spirit of rebellion in the people. So though Lanford approached Talley's Folly as a kinder, gentler play set in the 1940s as opposed to the more overtly turbulent times of Fifth of July, he nonetheless imbues both Sally and Matt with a deep suspicion of the status quo. They are people who term the "they-sayers" as "all liars." They are in essence a 1940s version of once-good-but-now-disillusioned soldiers, who have lost faith in government, church, and family. They essentially have only each other to build a future life of love and hope.
All of this is set against the backdrop of Lanford's childhood home of Lebanon, MO for which he possessed an array of complicated feelings, like any artist. There is both a longing and nostalgia for this small town American life that seems safely sequestered from the horrific casualties of the D-Day assault. Yet, there is a desire in Sally, as well as Matt, to escape the suffocating mendacity of a family and a culture in which any kind of "otherness" was not to be tolerated.
TS: You have two amazing actors playing Matt and Sally. What did you look for in casting them?
MW: The play is deceptively tricky to cast. Both characters require very nuanced, sensitive playing. The actors who portray them must be attractive and sexy, but not in a super conventional way, especially Matt. They must both be fiercely intelligent, have a passionate emotional life, but also be broken in some mysterious way. Humor and wit are their weapons of resiliency and salvation. Matt must have buckets of charm, and Sally a deep but fragile soulfulness that is in danger of being crushed forever. Add to it that these two actors must commit for a minimum of 4 months during what is still considered to be the peak pilot season period for television, that these actors must also elicit rapt attention from an audience for almost 100 minutes, and you can better understand the casting challenge, and why perhaps the play has not been revived in New York for over thirty years.
Artistic Director Todd Haimes, Casting Director Jim Carnahan and I began with Matt. We discussed an impressive group of actors, but Danny Burstein emerged as the actor with that unique blend of warmth, humor, charisma, and pathos to make him the one to follow in Judd Hirsch's footsteps and bring Matt to life again for this 21st Century revival.
Once we had Danny, the task became ever more crucial as we struck out to find his Sally, who needed to be more than 10 years his junior, and who must be capable of turning Matt's life so upside down that he can no longer conceive of living without her. Well, this narrowed our list considerably. Almost simultaneously, the three of us seized upon Sarah Paulson, whom I first saw on stage some 19 years ago in Horton Foote's Talking Pictures, and have been in love ever since with her particular alchemy of bewitching beauty and relentless truth. I could not believe our great good fortune when we were able to schedule our production around Danny's performance in the Broadway revival of Golden Boy, and in the hiatus following Sarah's second season turn in American Horror Story. We now had a dream cast for Lanford's dream of a play. It's my job now to not get in their way, but figure out how best to unleash their rich trove of talent to realize Lanford's unabashedly romantic story.
TS: How will the play manifest itself visually?
MW: As we began the design process, I thought about all of the potential "third characters" in the play: Sally's family in the Talley house up the hill (given life through Jeff Cowie's scenic elevation up stage right, Mark Bennett's sounds of Fanny Brice wafting down from the family radio, the moisture on the hem of David Woolard's dress for Sally, from where she has had to stride through a thick bouquet of high grass made golden sunset yellow and white moonlight blue by Rui Rita's lights); the river where the audience sits (the illusion created by the raking deck of Jeff's set, the rippling waves footlights by Rui and sounds by Mark); the Barnette farm stage left (mostly created by Mark's sounds of their dog Blackie, barking); but the most potent third character is undoubtedly Sally's Uncle Whistler, who built the boathouse, in the style of a gazebo, but made it his particular folly, filled with whirligigs, louvers, lattice and geegaws. The designers and I all felt that if we could bring Whistler on stage with the sights and sounds of the boathouse, we would have gone a long way to helping the audience understand who Sally is: specifically, that she is more like her Uncle, a heretic, rebellious, unconventional soul, trying to stake out an independent existence within a family who makes great noises about conforming to the community's mores all the while living lives of great hypocrisy. We wanted to create a space that would not only have enticed Sally to make it her special sanctuary, but would also enchant Matt.
TS: Will you talk about people who influenced your artistry?
MW: A lot of people have influenced me. I have been very blessed to have had a number of amazing mentors, including secondary school teachers such as Margaret Griffin and Phyliss Dunning; UNC-Chapel Hill professors such as Milly Barranger and Ben Cameron; Artistic Directors such as Robert Brustein and Gregory Boyd; and a diverse range of artists such as Andre Serban, Horton Foote, and Elizabeth Ashley, among many others. A director is the sum total of all his experiences in the theater. Talent is a mystery, but the craft, discipline and essential interest must be cultivated and passed down. I am fortunate to have learned from the very best teachers, beginning with my late father, who as my first little league baseball coach, taught me the importance of building a joyous esprit de corps among one's team, which has been the basis of how I built ensembles for plays ever since.
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