Over the past 20 years, “Best Play” Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes have increasingly gone to scripts inspired by hot headlines or infused with hip trends in postmodern stagecraft. Vermont companies have put on polished productions of The History Boys (2006 Tony), Doubt (2005 Pulitzer), Well (many 2004 “Best of” lists) and Prelude to a Kiss (nominated for the 1990 Tony and 1991 Pulitzer). But the stories themselves? Lavishly lauded by picky New York critics, these “emperors” aren’t exactly naked. But they do appear shockingly underdressed in the basics, such as effective plot and character development.
What a difference a decade makes. In 1980, great storytelling and compelling characters earned playwright Lanford Wilson his plaudits (and the Pulitzer) for Talley’s Folly. At St. Michael’s Playhouse, Wilson’s winsome two-person play demonstrates the staying power of a moving tale well told. Director Kenneth Kimmins and his compatible pair of actors nicely render the script’s sweet mix of comedy, romance and drama.
Talley’s Folly is essentially one long conversation between Matt Friedman and Sally Talley, at an old riverside boathouse on her family’s rural Missouri property. The play unfolds in a 97-minute scene — Matt keeps track on his pocket watch — as sunset fades into twilight on July 4, 1944. Matt has come from St. Louis to declare his love for Sally.
The couple had an intense, week-long romance the previous summer, when the fortysomething Jewish accountant was vacationing in the area. There are several obstacles, however, to resuming a relationship. Sally’s brother Buddy expresses the family’s view, greeting “communist infidel” Matt’s return with a double-barreled shotgun. More vexing, and difficult to overcome, is Sally’s own resistance. Matt has been writing her daily letters, which go unanswered. When he tried to see her at the hospital where she works, she hid in the kitchen to avoid him.
So Matt kicks into Sherlock Holmes mode, complete with detective’s notepad, and presses Sally to state why she would reject him specifically, or marriage in general. “I can take no for an answer,” he says. “I can’t take evasion; I can’t take ‘I’m scared.’” Thirtysomething Sally turns the tables to ask why Matt isn’t married. Each evades the other’s questions for as long as possible.
The aging boathouse where the couple meets is Uncle Whistler’s “folly,” a fanciful, impractical confection of Victorian woodwork. Most townsfolk thought Sally’s uncle was crazy for building it. But she defends his willing defiance of convention. “He did exactly what he wanted to do. He was the healthiest member of the family.” The question is: Will either Matt or Sally have the same courage?
John Patrick Hayden’s Matt is a charming jumble of earnest mensch, awkward goof and ardent lover. Hayden’s outward appearance — bearded, bespectacled, round-shouldered — suggests a self-effacing accountant. But he also captures Matt’s moxie, the spine it takes to withstand Sally’s relentless, unexplained rejection. His eyes flash with humor or bravery; they focus vigilantly on the object of his affection, reflecting more concern for her welfare than his own.
Abby Lee shows how torn Sally feels by the deep, inner conflict she conceals for most of the play. Lee gives her character the proud, graceful carriage of a well-heeled Southern woman, animated by Sally’s feisty intelligence and wit. But she also shows how it saps Sally’s physical energy to keep pretending she wants Matt to go away. Lee manifests this strain on her face and in her eyes, which dull as Sally’s urge to fight wanes.
Hayden and Lee mesh beautifully as the odd, star-crossed couple. The production’s only minor flaw is that Lee’s voice does not project as forcefully as Hayden’s. This makes it harder to hear Sally’s dialogue at certain points in the play.
Scenic designer James Wolk gives imaginative Uncle Whistler a run for his money. The elaborate, multilevel boathouse “folly,” in weathered gray and white painted wood, sprawls across the wide stage. A large porch with a swing forms the principal playing area, and a flight of steps leads to an upper gazebo. Details abound: cupolas, latticework, aging boats and nautical bric-a-brac.
Director Kimmins uses every part of the set thoughtfully. The actors’ movements flow naturally from the action of the play. Lighting designer Jeffrey E. Salzberg enhances the atmosphere with beautiful effects. Moonlight filters through trees and glistens on the gently rippling river.
Of course, there is no river; there are no trees. It’s all stagecraft. Matt opens the play with the house lights up, warning the audience there will be no intermission. But he and Sally soon draw you into their story. It’s easy to forget you’re in a theater by the time Matt says, “Once in your life you risk something. At least you will know that you did what you could.” And it’s easy to see connections to your own life; playwright Wilson has made you believe.