written by Lanford Wilson
presented by the Winnipesaukee Playhouse
directed by Marta Rainer
TALLEY'S FOLLY is the middle play in Lanford Wilson's Talley trilogy, focusing on daughter Sally and her lover, immigrant Matt Friedman, as each struggles to make sense of their lives during a time of mutual alienation, and the events and people which cause them to reconnect.
It's not so much what's on the surface- the unorthodox love affair between two socially disparate people while the country is in the grip of World War II, to name but one aspect- but what Sally and Matt have put aside, or buried within the accrued rickrack of their emotional lives, which is of value here.
It's the manner in which Sally and Matt unearth these forgotten treasures, and how they implement them in the search for what they want, which endows TALLEY'S FOLLY with a bounty of sterling examples of how the past informs the present, and thus the future, and of what is possible when we move between tenses: this is who we were; this is who we are now; this is who we can be.
TALLEY'S FOLLY is praiseworthy in that it sets itself apart structurally- one of its two principal characters, Matt, breaks the fourth wall to act as the play's de facto narrator at the play's beginning and at its conclusion; the set remains static; the entire play is executed in real time- ninety-seven minutes- and in one act, taking place on the Talley homestead on July 4, 1944, the same time and place as TALLEY AND SON, the third play in Wilson's trilogy but first in the chronology Wilson sets.
This is a play of exposition; as such, there's far less of the delicate balance between action and dialogue than in other works. Words are what drive this play, and it's the way playwright Lanford Wilson assembles those words which gives it a singular power- phrases unique to both time and place, and to personality and history.
Wilson's dialogue is sui generis, consisting of a language and a cadence all its own, requiring that the actors catch onto the rhythms, the phrasings, and the subtext of what Wilson would have conveyed in terms of articulating who the characters are, the conflicts which unite them (or keep them apart), and what they intend to do to move past the events and causalities which draw and bind them to a place as unconventional as a dilapidated old boathouse on a Midwestern river as the sun begins to set.
In the Winnipesaukee Playhouse's final offering of the 2014 summer season, the actors are excellent in many ways, but unfortunately as of opening night didn't demonstrate the facility of immersion in the specialized dialect which is required to give this play the energy it deserves.
Toby Miller, who plays Matt Friedman, tends to fall back on vocal and physical gimmickry, either speeding his end of the conversation or gesturing needlessly, coming off as frenetic and scattered in his characterization. To be fair, Miller is also tasked with having to speak with a regional European accent, further deepening the mystery of Matt's murky past; he gets the accent pretty well, but it pales against the overdone gesticulations and the staccato bursts of speech.
Molly Parker Myers, as Sally Talley, is exponentially better with her interpretation of the colloquy required of Sally; Myers also understands that it isn't what's said so much as what's left unspoken, trusting that the audience is capable of divining the emotional gradient beneath the words. Her deliberate pauses often balance out Miller's more strident efforts, but just as often come across as lugubrious.
Outside of the dialectic pitfalls, each actor is consistent in what they manifest; subsequent performances may lend further focus and clarity to that which the actors intend to convey.
Director Marta Rainer herself catches on to other patterns within TALLEY'S FOLLY- in particular how Wilson's writing illuminates characters who are never seen, but who are given critical importance to the present contentions which keep Sally and Matt at cross-purposes.
Rainer understands- at least academically- that a nascent romance requires a certain degree of struggle before it can reach full bloom. However, she focuses too much on the "meet-cute" aspect of the play, preferring to accentuate the preciousness of Sally and Matt's evolving relationship, broadcasting her own hope for the potential joy to which they as a couple are entitled, rather than emphasizing the small satisfactions they can earn as they work to get past the obstacles which thus far have prevented Sally and Matt from even being a couple- Sally's prejudiced, deeply dysfunctional family, her secret shame, Matt's ambivalence at his own checkered history and conflicted present existence, and what it will mean for them to be together at a time when the nation itself is in conflict.
While hope for a happy future is laudable, hope is a construct; its very intangibility makes it ephemeral. It's the stormy present, and the effort that the characters put forth in coping with it, which is of substance here, and of far more value in imparting what's really important, not merely the hope to which Sally and Matt aspire. Rainer chooses to gloss over that, and in so doing, diffuses the play's overall impact.
TALLEY's set is lushly rendered; it's as much a player onstage as the actors themselves. Designed by Charles Morgan, it represents a Victorian- era folly, a building erected for decoration, popular among the landed gentry at the turn of the 20th century as a way to show off their wealth and possessions, performing no function except to be a place to withdraw from the demands of life and family.
The folly we see does double-duty as a boathouse, but it's clear from the onset that it's seen better days- its paint is faded, some of its ornate gingerbread latticework is missing, and items brought from the big house back in the day have acquired the patina of neglect. It's both lovely and sad, a representation of the ennui which grips those that seek refuge within its dilapidated walls.
Lighting designer Becky Marsh provides a light show of unparalleled beauty; a sunset which slowly fades into twilight, giving way to the subsequent rising of the moon, painting the scene with a rich palette of color at first, then dappling everything with a resplendent interplay of light and shadow. Neil Pankhurst's soundscape is a palette of secret night sounds, interspersed with music of the era,
adding another opulent dimension to the already compelling scenic composition onstage.
Despite this production's deficiencies, I recommend that you see it. See it for its sets, lights, sounds, costumes and props- in fact, see it for all the ways in which the Winnipesaukee Playhouse technically manifests its consistently stellar offerings.
See it for the story and the language in which the story is framed. See it not merely for what it currently is, but what it can be.
See it for the manner in which Lanford Wilson crafts an otherwise superb parable, weaving a powerful narrative into the tapestry of a bygone time and place, and characters who exist to fight for their hearts' desire. Like the larger life through which we all move, there are stumbling blocks, but none so great that the lessons within are eclipsed.
As Sally and Matt discover within the confines in that old whimsical structure on the river, everything that makes TALLEY'S FOLLY worth seeing is there, waiting to be found.
It's only when we find those things, and bring them out into the open, that we can we make use of them. That is their value. There is treasure here. I am sure of it. You will be, too.
TALLEY'S FOLLY plays through August 30, 2014 at The Winnipesaukee Playhouse. Click the logo to go to their website for tickets and information.
Michael J. Curtiss
is a writer and playwright residing in Southern NH. When not acting as a freelance theatre critic, he oversees online marketing and social media for Costumes of Nashua LLC & Creative Costuming, based in Hudson, NH, and administers THE GRANITE STAGE page on Facebook.