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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Talley’s Folly’ a fully absorbing experience

Lanford Wilson’s play chimes at Stage Door Theatre.

PHOTO: Drew Brehl and Amy Ensign star in the Stage Door Theatre Company production of “Talley’s Folly.” Stage Door Theatre photo

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – One of the tricky parts of reviewing plays is not giving away too much. Like with Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly,” running through July 25 in a splendid production (5 stars out of 5) by Stage Door Theatre Company. Info: www.thirdavenueplayhouse.com.

The “Talley” of the title refers to the Talley family of Lebanon, Missouri. The Talleys are of some financial substance, but just barely because of the Depression of the 1930s. The central Talley in this story is Sally Talley, unmarried and now beset by a suitor of Eastern European Jewish extraction.

The “Folly” of the title is the tricky part. It means so much. A “folly” is an eccentric building. The word isn’t used much around these parts. The “folly” in the story is a boat house on the Missouri River. It’s part gazebo in structure, with a small dome and oddball walls of wooden slats akimbo. Along with looking a bit off, the building is getting on. It’s a bit run down. The use of the word “folly” also brings to mind its definition as something foolish, but that’s not Lanford Wilson’s full intent. What is his intent with “Folly”? That’s where this review can only say that playgoers, if they step back, will find satisfying symbolism in the word.

“Talley’s Folly” is one of those plays where much, much is packed into a compact packet of time and space. It’s billed as a romantic comedy out of a need to call it something; there’s so much more that happens than the words imply. The play leaves questions, but there are only so many answers that can be given in its 97-minute length.

“Talley’s Folly” is one of those plays that can be a tour de force for actors, appropriately set up in their space – as this production does in look, sound, props and the whole shebang.

The crux: Wonderful productions can be found at Door County theaters. This specific production is a step above. It’s of a league by itself in fine acting and fine production.

Drew Brhel and Amy Ensign ride a fast, high, derring-do roller coaster – even screaming in a sense when the dramatic/acting thrills get intense. Guided expertly by director Robert Boles, their portrayals are charged with pith, nuance, humor, pathos and power. They leave viewers with the feeling that we (and they) know Matt Friedman and Sally Talley.

Lanford Wilson disarms the audience when Matt Friedman steps into the performance area says what he’s about to do will be a waltz, as in a done deal, forgone conclusion, easy, piece of cake. What lies ahead for Matt Friedman is anything but a sure thing. Sally Talley is more a piece of work than a piece of cake. And Matt Friedman is equally complex and mysterious.

While exploring two strong personalities, Lanford Wilson opens a time capsule dense with imprints:

- It’s 1944. World War II is on. By July 1944, the corner has been turned, and maybe relief is in sight.

- Greed is on hand. The war has boosted the economy, and some look on continuation of the war as a good thing.

- A price of war is present. Sally Talley works in a hospital, tending to wounded men. Flash image: A mechanic, now with no hands.

- The Depression has left some people fearful of its return. Matt Friedman, an accountant, applies his expertise for Sally Talley and offers a lesson in economics.

- Tuberculosis is a disease of the past in the United States, but it still is present in this play.

- There’s a residue of Prohibition and a still.

- Nature is all around the boat house. The river flows past and is heard. Also heard are sounds of crickets, of dogs. Twilight is neigh, and stars eventually come out. Matt Friedman, the outsider, brings an appreciation of what’s around – picturing the landscape for the audience.

- The place is the South, with impressions of heat and bugs and snakes you don’t want to bite you.

- World War I still is present in Matt Friedman’s story – the politics, the policies, the cruelties, the nationalism or lack thereof.

- It’s a specific day – July 4. There’s more to that in this play than the sounds of a band and the promise of a fireworks display.

“Talley’s Folly” is quite the experience, from the ambiance to the absorbing acting that even includes a row boat acting like a row boat when characters step into it. The production is a theatergoers’ delight.

***

Creative: Playwright – Lanford Wilson, who won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Talley’s Folly;” director – Robert Boles; set and lighting design – James Valcq; production stage manager and sound design – Ryan Shaw; costume design – Jenny Angeli; master carpenter – Ed DiMaio; board operator – Sophie Hernando Kofman.

Cast: Matt Friedman – Drew Brhel; Sally Talley – Amy Ensign.

Extra: Lobby displays include a creation of the back story of the Talley family in the trilogy by Lanford Wilson.

***

THE VENUE: The 84-seat Studio Theatre is located in Third Avenue Playhouse in downtown Sturgeon Bay. The space is tucked into the corner off the main theater of the playhouse. Entry is along a long hallway off the playhouse’s lobby. Studio Theatre is a black-box theater; the walls and support beams are black. The focus becomes the stage, which is rectangular and has no curtain. With the closeness of the audience to the stage, the aura is the audience is part of what is transpiring in the play – most certainly in “Talley’s Folly.” The playhouse is in its 13th year as a live performance venue. It previously was a movie theater, the Donna.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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