Herald-Times Review:

'Talley's Folly': Zoom plays aren't just folly anymore

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Connie Shakalis | The Herald-Times

Sunday, December 7, 2020

 

These are the follies: the boathouse built in 1870, the male character (Daniel Meeks as Matt) born around 1902 and the female charter (Anna Doyle as Sally Talley) born 10 years later.

 

Lanford Wilson wrote one of my favorite dramatic plays, “Talley’s Folly,” in 1979, and it premiered in 1980, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year.

Architecturally, follies are costly structures built for show and having little practical purpose; they are popular additions to estates worldwide. As concepts, they suggest foolishness and lives lived wastefully.

Wilson’s 97-minute play — Matt breaks the fourth wall and tells us its length, as the show begins — includes only these three characters: Matt, Sally and the dilapidated boathouse. All the action takes place inside the spare little building. The Jewish Theatre of Bloomington did an outstanding job revealing this via Zoom screen in their virtual staged reading Saturday and Sunday. Many times I forgot that Doyle and Meeks were not in the same room, or on an actual set.

Doyle’s dog added surprising (literally) sound effects — “Folly” effects? — as the hound barked sharply during a poignant scene. I for one assumed it was planned. It wasn’t, and Doyle blinked nary an eye.

Sally Talley’s uncle built the boathouse for her childhood self, she believes. He had noticed that she, like him, was a free thinker and needed a space all to herself. She does, and years later it is where she enjoys a week-long affair with a man she has just met at a Fourth of July party.

“You’re Sally’s Jewish friend, aren’t ya?” Matt retells Sally, of her (Protestant) brother’s recent greeting. Matt has come visiting one year after the (supposedly) secret affair.

The ostensibly mismatched couple meet again. Now, in 1944, Wilson’s drama occurs here at the Talley property. Matt has pursued Sally throughout the entire year, with only one reciprocal letter from her to him.

“Now, after almost three years of war,” Matt says, “we are told the country has been saved by war.” He speaks here of WWII, but WWI enters the story soon. And with it, a harrowing account of danger in overheard conversations. (See Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the Haber-Bosch process, 1918.)

Reminiscent of the neglected boathouse, both Sally and Matt have long neglected their hopes. They have abandoned any dreams of happy futures and romantic love, for two vastly — and in Matt’s case, horribly — different reasons.

The boathouse, although a mighty character, has no lines, so Meeks and Doyle take on the hefty challenge of delivering 97 minutes’ worth of dialogue.

Meeks and Doyle admitted during the talkback that they had used cheat sheets, but they hid that fact so well that I found their version almost as good as the one I had seen fully staged in 1980.

Some refer to the play as a romantic comedy, and it does glow with Wilson’s irony and humor, but it is firmly a drama, and one that punches in the stomach.

Meeks conquers the frightening job of learning a foreign accent — something that if not mastered, distracts far more than enlightens. He also shines at delivering Wilson’s poetic, pithy and Maserati-fast lines. I love him, of course, within the first seven minutes.

Doyle is equally as moving, interesting and lovable. Independent and liberal Sally, in a strictly conservative and compassionless Midwestern old-money family, has met Matt, a Jewish, foreign born, possible Socialist. Doyle is a marvel at making us wonder what the hell is up.

Sally rebuts Matt’s love, and we will soon know why.

All theaters long for good plays. A well-written play makes it easier for the actors and director — and definitely the audience and sponsors — but it can backfire if the cast doesn’t have the finesse or experience to deliver.

Meeks, Doyle and director Martha Jacobs have delivered Wilson’s extraordinary work.

“We all have a Humpty Dumpty complex,” Matt says.

Wilson tells us that we are eggs, in our own, separate and smashable shells, bumping up against each other. I would relish a chance to bump up against this theater’s staged reading of “Talley’s Folly” again.

Producing artistic director Audrey Heller, How might we see this once more?