Reviewed by Will Stackman
Of the three plays in Lanford Wilson's hometown trilogy, the Pulitzer Prize winner "Talley's Folly" (1979) is perhaps the most complete drama, in spite of being the shortest and having only two characters. These limitations allow for complete Chekovian character development and perhaps even a happy ending. Wilson hasn't been seen much in Boston recently, though the Lyric successfully produced his retro "The Book of Days"(1998) three seasons ago and the Huntington attempted his 1987 "Burn This" with a contemporary feel in 2004. "Rain Dance" (2001) hasn't yet been seen in Boston.
Award-winning director Adam Zahler, who just did "Brooklyn Boy" for Speakeasy Stage, carefully choreographed the action in this long one act. He's fortunate to have Marianna Bassham, last seen hereabouts as Antigone for Nora Theatre, playing thirtyish Sally Talley, with Stephen Russell back up from WHAT on the Cape, as Matt Friedman. The ghost of Judd Hirsch hangs over the latter part, but once Russell's through the showoff opening in which his character speaks directly to the audience, this experienced actor makes the role his own. As in any pas de deux, it's tension between the partners which, when resolved, completes the duet. Moreover, the situation the pair find themselves in, during the political uncertainty of WWII still feeling the ravages of the Great Depression, has a different sort of resonance today than in 1979--post Vietnam. The production hardly seems dated, though it's perhaps not quite the valentine Wilson imagined a quarter century ago.
Bassham plays Sally with refreshing clarity, winning the audience over very quickly. This feisty Southern woman obviously deserves a better lot in life than being a small town spinster, but can't get beyond her past to accept an urban Jewish suitor. Russell's Matt, an emigre in his forties, has seen much more of the world and has secrets of his own. Both actors handle the play's long speeches confidently. Wilson parcels out the truths about their very different and potentially tragic lives to the audience at the same time the two realize who each other is. The resulting love story is completely engaging, both as plot and as an agon between two fully developed human beings, here portrayed by actors willing to risk delving into them. The other two plays in the trilogy would be far more effective today if they could be boiled down to a similar density.
The "folly" in the title is first of all a charming ruined boathouse, nicely designed and detailed by Janie E. Howland. The realistic platformed acting area is bounded by a very blue floor from which protruding footlights allow lighting designer John Cuff to project ripples of moonlight off the water onto the scene. The same moon appears discretely on the cyc, while three painted landscapes evoke surrounding trees. Dewey Dellay's sound design provides realistic noises and the sound of a distant band drifting over the water. Costumer Molly Trainer gives Matt a period suit and a brown hat; Sally has a light dress, believably new. The thrust space at the Lyric once again proves ideal for intimate drama, focusing on the action.
According to the playwright, "Talley's Folly" went through considerable changes during its development. In the hands of a skilled director and seasoned actors, the play continues to develop. Sally Talley in 2006 can't remain the 1943 rural Southern belle, nor can Matt remain simply the nerdy emigre. Today's theatre demands stronger characters and this cast finds them in surprising ways. The risk is worth it. Zahler, Bassham and Russell have breathed life into Matt and Sally and earned applause not merely for the show, but for its hopeful conclusion.