Such a beautiful masala of cultures sparks spontaneously onstage in New Jewish Theatre’s current production of Talley’s Folly, directed with ruach (spirit) and naches (delight) by Deanna Jent.
Alright, I freely confess that it is hard for me to be fully objective on this one, since I’m distantly related to playwright Lanford Wilson by marriage, and knew most of his family. But that proximity also gives me the insight to grasp that this is a play about real people, real flesh and blood, and real feelings.
Talley’s Folly is 93 minutes (or is it 94?) of brisk dialogue between only two characters. To hold audience attention under such Spartan conditions is a challenge for playwright and actors. Fortunately, Shaun Sheley as Jewish accountant Matt Friedman, who drives from St. Louis to Lebanon in 1944 to pursue the woman from another world who has taken hold of his heart, and Meghan Maguire as Sally Talley, infuse their minutes onstage with biting wit, disdain, suspicion, insight, warmth, playfulness and, ultimately, love and trust. Meghan Maguire captures the Missouri twang perfectly, and Shaun Sheley adroitly embodies the characteristic shoulder shrugs and body language that have enabled Jewish men for generations to peer at the world, and the challenges they face, from a renewed perspective. Scenic designer Jason Coale’s onstage depiction of a southern Missouri boathouse adds the right touch of atmosphere to enhance the dialogue.
It would be a serious error, though, to presume that Lanford Wilson’s characters restate the worn stereotypes of country bumpkins and passionless Jewish businessmen. Sally Talley is every inch a woman of the country, yet she is also educated, rich and thoughtful; Matt Friedman knows that life without love and adventure is not really life at all. Lanford Wilson understood that the people of Missouri, in all their diversity, should never be underestimated.
Yet Wilson’s characters are true to life. In one scene, Matt comments on the bizarre nicknames popular among Ozarkians—and, I might add, among eastern Europeans. Wilson knew what he was talking about. Down in Lebanon, few can even recall his stepmother “Tom-Ann” Wilson’s real name. Likewise there were such denizens known as Tick, Dink, Cousin Chuck and Uncle Leon, all brilliant armchair philosophers and all passionate about life and the human condition. It was from these sources that Wilson drew the inspiration that made him an award-winning playwright.
Talley’s Folly is a beautiful melding of cultures and a melting of hearts. It is not a story of cultures and genders battling each other, but of men and women, Christians and Jews, old world and new, coming together in love, understanding and affirmation of life. In her Director's Notes, Deanna Jent remarks that "Sally and Matt stand in for each of us." That thought sums up the power of this play.
New Jewish Theatre’s production of Talley’s Folly continues at the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the Jewish Community Center through December 23.