King and Phillips shine in ‘Talley’s Folly’
By Sara Bir
Sonoma County Repertory Theatre makes a sort of return to its roots with Talley’s Folly, a two-character play by Missouri native Lanford Wilson. The two actors in question are Scott Phillips and Jennifer King-Phillips, who first met in an SCR production of The Glass Menagerie and are now married. King recently returned to Sonoma County to become SCR’s executive director, while SCR founder and artistic director Jim dePriest directs.
And they could not have chosen a more well-suited play for this reunion. Winner of the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Talley’s Folly is an intimate and intricate story of the premature spinster Sally Talley and her unlikely Jewish immigrant suitor, Matt Friedman, set in small-town Lebanon, Mo., in 1944.
The titular folly is a neglected boathouse by the river where Sally retreats to have a moment’s peace from her overbearing family, who, for reasons yet unclear, regard her as somewhat of an embarrassment and a burden. But the folly is also the spot where, the summer before, Matt wooed Sally during their bungled week-long courtship. He’s made a special trip from the city to Lebanon to convince Sally to be with him.
Matt states in the play’s prologue that the story is a waltz. And as we see in Matt and Sally’s hit-and-miss interactions, it’s a very delicate, unsteady waltz–which is what makes Talley’s Folly so delightful. The two characters stumble through a romantic pas de deux, making the same missteps we’ve all made, only condensed here into a dramatically taut, heartfelt 97 minutes. That Talley’s Folly has no intermission means the escalation in the tension between Matt and Sally has no abatement; in the hands of King and Philips, their encounter does not drag on so much as it drags us in.
Matt and Sally each have secrets that they must come to terms with before they can fully give themselves over to each other–and these are the kinds of secrets that they have to reveal to themselves, not just to each other; they are secrets that have come to shape the people they’ve become.
What’s engrossing about Talley’s Folly is that even though Sally and Matt discuss the circumstances going on in each other’s lives, there’s an otherworldly, detached air about the folly that enables them to laboriously iron out the wrinkles in the tapestry of their relationship.
Sally, for one, refuses to acknowledge that they even have a relationship. She spends much of the play scowling with her arms crossed, her back to Matt. Liberal, independent, and true to her own motivations almost in spite of herself, King’s Sally is played with a general hostility that at times comes off as coy and at other times fragile. Sally may direct her anger towards Matt, but it’s ultimately aimed at herself.
And, like a dance, there’s a great deal of fancy footwork to keep a respectable distance. Matt advances a step, Sally retreats a step. King and Phillips’ real-life marital status works two-fold in this manner, as they are able to read each other as actors with an uncanny accuracy. But as characters, their Sally and Matt communicate the delicious tension that arises between a couple whose affection for each other is still not yet able to fully break the surface. When King and Scott hold hands, its as if they have never touched each other before.
Phillips as Matt–an outspoken, spirited man given to grandiose asides–has may lines where he lampoons the Oakie hick dialect of Sally’s family, and he’s spot-on almost to the point of distraction. While these moments deliver much of the play’s comic punch, one is left wondering how a Jew who normally speaks with a pronounced Yiddish accent flawlessly assumes an Ozark twang at will. But it’s Phillips’ exuberance as Matt that propels the play. Exasperating but endearing, Matt’s determination is only matched by Sally’s resistance.
Permeated with a balmy summer night’s potency, Talley’s Folly is an ideal play for the summer: engrossing and uplifting, it’s hardly a trifle.
‘Talley’s Folly’ plays through July 12. Main Street Theatre, 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. $18 general; $15 seniors and students. 707.823.0177. www.sonoma-county-rep.com.
From the June 19-25, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.