If it is true that opposites attract, prime candidates for such a relationship would be Matt Friedman and Sally Talley, the mismatched lovers at the heart of Lanford Wilson's bittersweet and, in Matt’s characterization, "no-holds-barred romantic story," Talley's Folly, now playing at the Bickford Theatre in collaboration with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey and Old Castle Theatre Company of Vermont.
In architectural terms, a "folly" is “a very unusual or fancy building built in a garden for decoration or amusement in the past.” Of course, it also refers to “the lack of good sense or judgment.” The former meaning can be applied to the dilapidated boathouse built on the Talley estate by Uncle Everett Talley in 1870, a Victorian edifice complete with louvers, slats and various geegaws; the latter definition references to Matt's romantic pursuit of Sally, for never were two people more oddly matched.
The events of Talley's Folly that unfold over 97-intermission-less minutes, occur in that boathouse on July 4, 1944. It seems that a year ago, on a summer vacation from his job as an accountant in St. Louis, Matt traveled south 200 miles to Lebanon, Missouri, where he met Sally Talley, only daughter of a wealthy conservative, Protestant businessman. After a lovely week together, Matt sent Sally letters every day; a subsequent unannounced visit to the hospital where she worked as a nurse's aide was equally fruitless. The problems impeding this relationship? Matt is older than Sally, and more importantly, he's a Jew—and an urban one at that. Despite dire expectations, Matt has once again traveled to Lebanon, this time to declare his love for Sally and ask her to marry him. Whether he accomplishes his goal is the crux of Wilson's play.
Under John Pietrowski's keen direction, the play unfolds slowly (on purpose), and events stealthily sneak up on the audience. Eli Ganias's Matt comes off as a bit of a wise guy in his pre-play patter with the audience about what they can expect in the staging and setting. In the beginning of his encounter with Sally, he annoyingly cracks jokes, most of them strained and predictable. But when his answers to her questions about his background peel away this bravado, Ganias (right, with Amy Griffin) beautifully reveals a man haunted by his past (no spoilers) and unsure whether he can ever find love. We find ourselves rooting for this man in the face of Sally's sarcastic and often mean attempts to turn him away.
Amy Griffin is equally as terrific as Sally, college educated and, according to her, "liberal." When, emboldened by revealing the skeletons in his closet, Matt asks her why she is 30 years old and unmarried, Sally is forced to face and disclose the secrets in her past, an act that, instead of forcing them apart, ironically makes them more alike. Griffin's Sally is saucy, feisty and cruel, all at once, but once the character bares her soul, Griffin easily makes the shift that results in Sally's being a more sympathetic character.
The set, designed by Roman Klima, decorated by Katherin Lopez and propped by Dani Pietrowski, is more spare than a Victorian gazebo-like structure would be, but it serves as a perfect backdrop to the complex affairs of the heart unfolding on it. Two rowboats at the front of the stage remind us that it is located on a river. If you've ever wondered what lighting and sound designers really contribute to a production, you just have to be aware of Roman Klima's masterful manipulation of light to show the passage of time from dusk to darkness, along with Matt Boyle's use of sound to convey a fine sense of locale. Fran Harrison has dressed the actors in attire that communicates their situations very well: a suit and tie for urban accountant Matt and a pretty floral frock and strappy heels for rural belle Sally.
Winner of the 1980 Pulitzer Prize and Drama Critics' Circle Award, Talley's Folly is the middle play of a trilogy about the Talley family, but you do not have to be familiar with the others to get pleasure from this one. The play's charm builds gradually, so that you might find yourself getting a bit antsy for something to happen beyond verbal sparring. When each character finally opens up, this mostly talky play really flowers dramatically, so that the ending is both appropriate and satisfactory.
If you are unfamiliar with the prolific Lanford Wilson's oeuvre, Talley's Folly is a nice introduction. While the time and place may be very particular, the themes he examines are supremely human and universal. Keeping secrets is never a good idea, especially for romantic situations to succeed.
Talley's Folly will run through April 26 at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.971.3706 or visit www.morrismuseum.org/Bickford online.