Talley's Follyby Lanford Wilson. Directed by John Pietrowski. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Eli Ganias and Amy Griffin; photo: Richard Howe
Emily Griffin and Eli Ganias; photo: Richard Howe
"People found hope in union."
In 1978 Lanford Wilson began to write three plays about the Talley family - ostensibly his own family - reflecting on the ways in which various members of the tight-knit group affected a Vietnam war veteran. "Fifth of July" was the first. In an effort to clue in one actress he wrote the second play, "Talley's Folly" set more than thirty years earlier. He then wrote a third play about goings on at the same time as "Talley's Folly" in another part of the property in Lebanon, Missouri. All three were produced in a few short years by the Circle Repertory Theatre, a company the playwright co-founded. "Talley's Folly" created a star in Judd Hirsch and established a career for Wilson. Now it is playing at the Oldcastle Theater in Bennington, Vermont.
Set in a folly, a free-standing structure near the riverbank, Sally Talley, a thirty-one year old woman meets her lover, Matt Friedman for an unanticipated, but foreseen, tryst. They spar, they spark, they fight and they open themselves to one another. He pushes her and she shoves back. He cajoles and she capitulates. She rejects him and he responds in kind but forces her to confess to him her secret of secrets. When they're done with their ninety-seven minutes of confusion, they find themselves inexorably drawn to one another and their special theatrical moonlight fades to black.
The winner of a Pulitzer Prize, this has never been one of my favorite plays. I much prefer "Fifth of July." However, this is the one that people continue to return to and try to make it work. There are too many problems with it, however, for me. Seventy-two minutes into the play we know that they are ideal for one another but they ignore this to continue their sparring. He's obnoxious and she's got a repulsive manner. I never care if they find common ground and I've seen eight productions of this play. I keep waiting for someone to make it work for me and no one has.
Director John Pietrowski has come as close as anyone ever has to bringing this play to genuine life. He gives his actors a sheen of idealism that helps to mask their basic unpleasantness. He has used his stage as a locale and not a stage set. He has created real people using real people who don't "act" but seem to live their roles on stage for us. It is a brilliant example of stage realism and I congratulate him for losing the "cute" tensions that often playout in this show. Instead he lets the dogs chase the dogs until suddenly, with a pause in the action and the verbiage he lights a fire under Sally and lets her become the woman she has always wanted to be for a man who is her equal. From that point on the play has an excitement I don't remember in other productions.
He has an excellent actress for Sally, Amy Griffin, who finds her way into the character at the moment when Sally Talley needs to become a real woman. She angles her way into the confessional of this "folly" with just the right amount of edge and when she finally reveals her awful secret it's not so big a revelation, and not so bad a secret either. Griffin literally rips away the mask of gentility to show us, and Matt, the strength of a character who has been forced to live a lie and lie like the dickens for a decade. This is a wonderful performance, at last.
Eli Ganias plays the immigrant Jew with a certain panache that almost makes him likeable from the outset. He has more charm than some actors have shown us in the role and he has some clarity issues as his light, ethnic accent wavers in and out during the play. The lightweight political issues that surround Matt are always a problem as he cites Emma Goldman and ignores his own time except to exhort Franklin Roosevelt now and then. Part of what attracts Sally to him are his convictions which so out-distance her own at this stage in their relationship and Ganias takes them almost as asides and leaves her out of his inner leanings. Ganias brings us, instead, a more visceral Matt whose yearning for Sally is as physical as it is intellectual and that makes his character a bit less accessible and even likeable. Still those final twenty minutes of the play with he and Griffin sparring and competing for dominance are electric and his work at the far end of the play is as near perfection as you can get.
Roman Klima's set is spartan and works well even as it lacks a bit of character. Fran Harrison's costumes perfectly define character, era and locale. Klima's lighting is sensitive and seductive as reinterpreted by Matthew Bush. Matthew Bolye's sound design is excellent as adapted by Cory Wheat. (This is a co-production with two other companies and has been brought here to open the Oldcastle season fully formed and staged elsewhere first.)
I really hope to see a perfect production of Wilson's "Fifth of July" and I'm a bit tired of this play, "Talley's Folly." I do love Lanford Wilson's use of language, so reminiscent at times of early Tennessee Williams, so I will settle for this current offering. It's the first new show of the 2015 summer season and for all of my complaints about it, the play did do what good theater should do: it made me think and talk about its message, characters and plot for a long while afterward. You can't ask for much more than that.
Talley's Folly runs through May 17 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, located at 331 Main Street, Benningto, Vermont. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-447-0564 or go on line at www.oldcastletheatre.org.