Updated: Mar 20, 2019
★★★★☆ - Delicious
A Public Fit Theatre Company says they love talking about theater, and they love talking about it with you. The group gives a monthly, staged play-reading and invites the audience to join in a discussion about it after, a talk-back known as “The Buzzz.” These offerings are free to the public, and while the actors perform with book in hand each piece gets a full-length rendering. Their first show of 2016 was a reading of Lanford Wilson’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning one-act “Talley’s Folly,” held Friday at The Inspire Theater. The production was exceptionally polished despite having had a short rehearsal period and minimal staging, and the mood of the audience was relaxed and happy, as if a roomful of friends had gathered to see the show.
Although the reading had moments both tender and funny, “Folly” is by no means a light-hearted play. It takes place on the evening of Independence Day, 1944, a time when World War II was in full swing. Matt Friedman (Timothy Cummings) has come to visit Sally Talley (Kelli Andino) at the Talley Farm near Lebanon, Missouri, meeting up secretly in the dilapidated boathouse where she goes to find refuge from her family. It’s been a year since they were last together, during a week-long romance they had when Matt vacationed in her hometown. Smitten, he wrote her a letter almost every day through the year, and persisted even when Sally barely acknowledged him. Now he has barged back into her life and “steady in his purposes” has come to collect her.
Her family (who exist as off-stage characters) is not happy about Matt. Her dad says he’s “more dangerous than Roosevelt himself” and her brother Buddy ran him off with a shotgun. They call him a communist. So what has Matt done to provoke their ire? He’s a German-Jewish emigrant and the Talley’s are as WASP as they get. Ethnic and hairy, he’s an archetype for the conquering barbarian who takes the woman as his prize. It’s a push-pull, taboo relationship but both are damaged outcasts and they are able to commiserate. “You can’t put on a pretty dress to come down here and chase me away,” he says. He manages to woo her and love conquers all.
On the page Matt has an undeniable charm but is also extremely aggressive and a downright stalker, with behavior that would be intolerable to most modern women. During the “Buzzz” director Ann Marie Pereth talked about softening Matt’s aggression in order to make the play more immediate, more relatable for the audience of today. It’s a credit to actor Cummings that Matt felt like a fully-formed, appealing, and fascinating man considering the limited rehearsal time they had. He commanded and steered the show skillfully yet imperceptibly, hitting all the right notes at just the right times. He grabbed the laughs and all the feels with his many monologues, especially his “Probable Lit” speech where he revealed his sad childhood and how it shaped Matt’s entire life.
Andino’s performance as Sally felt like an echo of the fragile Laura from Tennessee William’s “Glass Menagerie,” apropos since Wilson’s writing in general was undoubtedly influenced by the famous playwright. Matt even seems like a parallel to Tom from the same piece, with his direct narration to the audience making it feel like a memory play. Andino captured Sally’s sweetness, coquettishness, and regal bearing, but didn’t completely convey a certain sassiness that would have given a confident resonance to her voice. But it’s fun to imagine how dynamic a full production would be if Cummings and Andino had more time to grow into the relationship, and the simple yet effective staging and moonlit lighting helped us envision it even more.
Producing director Joseph Kucan helmed the “Buzzz” after the show, and it felt like a college theater class. The substantial subtext and symbolism of the play was a subject of discussion, as was the incredible uncertainty, loss, and social stratification of the era. It was agreed that not much has really changed since that time, especially with the way society still demonizes immigrants. The unconventional relationship of Matt and Sally garnered much attention about how and why we fall in love, and how family shapes our identities. And we wondered about the meaning of “Folly” in the play beyond the frivolous Victorian-style boathouse Sally’s rebellious Uncle had built, perhaps symbolic of old-fashioned shallowness and repressed emotion. Or does it simply symbolize a mistake?