Harry’s Upstage Theatre
Walking in to visit an old friend not seen in years, I always wonder if our reunion will be as good as I remember our first meeting. Such is my feeling as I enter the small, intimate Harry’s Upstage at the Aurora and see the somewhat familiar “folly” before me – a latticed, gazebo-looking boat landing complete with row boat, river grass, and lots of oars, floats and fishing gear hanging on its feeble walls. It has been about twenty years since I first met Lanford Wilson’s much-performed, universally loved Talley’s Folly, and I wonder if the warm glows it still elicits through my memory bank will be reinforced tonight.
As soon as the bearded actor in full suit and tie walks down the aisle, breaks the fourth wall, and begins addressing the audience as if we were old friends, I am ready for him to take us to that 1944 evening in Lebanon, Missouri. As he meticulously sets the scene of dappled moonlight, frogs croaking, water-lapping at dock’s edge, and far-off band playing (and in fact he does so twice in a masterfully executed prologue to the evening), I am so reminded of another opening of a personal favorite (the Stage Manager of Our Town). I am now even more ready to be drawn into this story that feels so familiar yet is so particular to the time and place of Second World War, small-town America. We are told tonight will be like a waltz; and as the actor directs the lazy symphony of croaks, barks, and crickets to commence and the lights to soften, the dance between two would-be lovers begins.
The Jewish, European-accented accountant Matt Friedman has arrived from St. Louis to pursue the hand of the red-haired, goyish nurse’s aide, Sally Talley, who still lives (reluctantly, we discover) with her small-town, factory-owing family. It seems that Matt has already presented himself to her family and has been chased out of the house by Sally’s ‘Communist-hating’ brother (who also does not want a Jew hanging around) holding a two-barreled shotgun. She meets him in this now-dilapidated folly built in an earlier century by her ancestor, full of supposed fury for his showing up here instead of at her clinic and for his coming back after a year’s absence from their first and only week together. His almost daily letters to her have made no impression (or so she says); and the more Matt tries to convince her of his sincerity of devotion and desire, the more she resists – except when his humor and awkward mishaps (like falling through the rotting floor or pulling down a loose shelf onto his head) bring her guard down just enough for us – and him – to suspect she ‘doth protest too much.’ As the conversations ebb and flow, the dance of the two also proceeds, not always as a waltz but sometimes as an angry tango, a sexy cha-cha-cha, or a rambunctious lindy. But when the two ease into the moment and allow truthful revelations of past histories to spill forth, the waltz reappears as a beautiful cadence of emerging love.
What makes this Folley truly memorable are the performances of our Matt and Sally. Rolf Saxon commands attention from his first venture beyond the fourth wall as he engages us early on before stepping into the story. He is interesting in his somewhat foreign and sophisticated (to this small town and to 1944 America) manners. His boyish pursuits of love are awkward and sometimes silly and are totally not what one would expect of a 42-year-old accountant. We are quickly sold on his sincerity and are surely all cheering him on as he trips, flops, and flings his way from one corner of the small dock house to the other, trying to get and keep the attention of the very coy, often annoyed Sally.
Lauren English equally matches Mr. Saxon’s comeuppance with her own reserved yet defiant stance as she tries to persuade him to leave the property at once before her anti-Semantic brother arrives. Yet, we see in her shining eyes and in the up-turned corners of her mouth that her words do not really match her heart; and we suspect that she really wants to be won over. Tears of frustration with her small-town, gossip-filled life and her narrow-minded family often well in her eyes. From our vantage only a few feet away in this small venue, we experience viscerally the anguish of a secret that somehow haunts and constrains Ms. English’s Sally. As her muscles tighten and relax beneath the new dress Sally has bought for the evening’s encounter, we can see a struggle and feel a compassion that are felt deep within.
We are drawn into this dance of our two would-be lovers by the skilled and sensitive performances of two actors who also know just when to crack a smile, laugh at their own uptightness, and sigh with the wonder of the evening and each other. Much credit must also go to the astute direction of Joy Carlin. She orchestrates the moves of her two actors through every inch of this small, confined corner of Lebanon, Missouri and knows just when to shift moods and modes so to keep us as well as Sally and Matt fully engaged and on track.
On the surface, this is a beautiful love story. In its undercurrents flow issues America was and was not dealing with in 1942: anti-Semitism, class divisions, sexism, fear of the immigrant. A 25-year-old play of an almost 75-year-old story is unfortunately still very current but also fortunately still very touching and heart-warming.
Rating: 4 E’s
Talley’s Folly continues at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre (Harry’s Upstage) through June 7, 2015.