Sometimes a love story against impossible odds is exactly the ticket. And that dream materializes in Syracuse Stage’s excellent production of Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly” –– fully staged, filmed by Black Cub Productions, and streaming to viewers through Sunday.
These days it helps if the couple onstage, unmasked and undistanced, exist in their own pod, and in this case it’s the married actors, Kate Hamill (playwright of “Pride & Prejudice”)and Jason O’Connell (Salieri in “Amadeus”). These engaging actors take us far away –– back to the Fourth of July, 1944, in an abandoned boathouse on a farm near rural Lebanon, Missouri.
Wilson himself was born in Lebanon in 1937, and this romantic drama –– which won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Drama Critics Circle Award, reflects the world of his midwestern youth.
Elegantly directed by Robert Hupp, Syracuse’s artistic director, the play is still timely, as aptly summed up in his program notes: “The theme of ‘Talley’s Folly’ is hope –– hope for this seemingly mismatched couple, hope for a seemingly divided country. Set against the backdrop of a national crisis, ‘Talley’s Folly’ doesn’t promise a happy ending, but it does offer the promise of a journey worth taking.”
Matt Friedman, 42, an accountant (Jewish, heritage undisclosed), met Sally Talley, 31, a nurse’s aide (Christian, daughter of privileged locals), the previous summer at a dance, and he’s been writing her daily ever since. He’s now arrived, quite uninvited, to take their relationship further –– despite her denying it even exists. Knocking at the grand house on the hill, Matt, the “Communist infidel,” has been chased off by Sally’s shotgun-toting brother. He’s taken refuge in their decaying Victorian boathouse, where Sally arrives, determined to shoo him home to St. Louis.
That’s the setup, but in fact the play opens as a story: Alone, Matt begins to narrate that fateful evening to the audience, invoking his own awkwardness and helpful romantic embellishments –– the willows, breeze, moonlight, crickets, frogs and bees. And then, just for “latecomers,” he recites it all again, in double time.
This opening inevitably charms audiences, and with Jason O’Connell embodying Matt, we’re easily swept up. He’s a passionate knight in a stuffy brown suit and outrageous red tie –– alternately intellectual, doubtful, fierce, witty, and evasive. It’s a fascinating performance, memorable for its nuance and likeability.
Hamill’s Sally, pert in a new summer dress (period costumes by Suzanne Chesney), is unrelentingly unwelcoming; for a full half hour she rails at Matt like a fishwife. As scripted, perhaps, but it makes us wonder why Matt’s so fond of her. Sally rejects him repeatedly until nearly the very end, her emerging change of heart ever so muted.
Private about his own past, Matt probes Sally for hers –– as daughter of a wealthy family, once engaged to the local sports hero destined for success, why has she never married? In turn Sally pushes him to reveal his background –– what nationality, what family, why single?
Their confrontation, shifting from comical to painful and back, takes place in the weathered boathouse –– handsomely designed by Czerton Lim and lit, from dusk to moonlight, by Dawn Chiang; Jacqueline R Herter’s sound animates it with fireworks, wailing dogs, and a distant band. The boathouse’s folly, or gazebo, was built by Sally’s uncle, who “followed his heart,” as the couple is also trying to do, however fitfully.
Religion, history, and culture (even their accents) divide them, as well as the distance between his job in St. Louis and her life in Lebanon. But Sally, who’s eager to leave home, is a free thinker: Not every Christian girl gets fired from teaching Sunday school for lecturing on labor issues. And they’re on the same page politically; Matt jokes that her brother thinks he’s “more dangerous than Roosevelt himself.”
Matt is persistent, demanding, fuming –– then flipping to tell stories and jokes and imitate Bogart. He discovers some old ice skates, dons them and stumbles around the deck, falling through, and only Sally’s amused warning of “copperheads, cottonmouths, and water moccasins” manages to extricate him.
Sally swabs his wound with gin, they drink the gin, they banter, they eventually waltz. Matt’s relentless, multi-pronged attack finally wears her down, though he succumbs first. Uncomfortably, in a distancing, storytelling way, he shares his Lithuanian past, his family’s dark history, his own private vow.
Their pitched battle goes a few more rounds before Sally, exhausted, agonizingly reveals her secret shame. Throughout, their exchange has been intense, tender, complex, and utterly believable. And the struggle has closed the gap between them, earning, to our great satisfaction, a sweet ending.
Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly,” directed by Robert Hupp, featuring Kate Hamill and Jason O’Connell, streams through Nov. 22. Tickets: https://syracusestage.org/.
Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.