Reflections Theatre Ensemble

To the casual observer, the Talley family seems to have it all — wealth, high social standing, and a big house. Owners of a local bank, and coowners of a clothing factory doing a booming business supplying uniforms to the Army during World War II, the Talleys appear fortunate in their well-being. I wish that were true, and that Lanford Wilson had written a light-hearted commentary on family togetherness instead of the brooding, convoluted morass he calls Talley and Son.

The play opens to a radio news report of recent American victories. Timmy Talley, a young soldier dressed in fatigues, listens to the radio and proclaims that the “United States won the war today.” Clearly, he’s wrong, since the date of the play is July 4, 1944. But seeing as how Timmy is dead, he’s allowed a little uncorrected sentimentality. Anyway, by now the war has swung decidedly in the Allies’ favor, and with the industrial might of the United States devoted full-time to the war, it is only a matter of time until the Allies claim victory. And Timmy’s announcement helps focus our attention on the home front, that imagined oasis of calm and peace to which the soldiers will soon return. If the Talley home is any indication, the home front is likely to be more hazardous to a soldier’s health than the battlefield. An unending stream of tensions, conflicts, and suspicions is coming to a head here, all slowly revealed one after another.

Here’s Buddy Talley home on leave from the war in Europe. And everyone is expecting Timmy to come in from the Pacific. Both are due in for the funeral of Grandpa Talley (called Mr. Talley in the play), the stubborn ruling patriarch of the Talley clan. Funerals are fine, except Grandpa isn’t dead. He had been gravely ill recently, and his overeager children had rushed ahead with their preparations, thinking Grandpa wouldn’t recover. But he did, and now son Eldon is all the more resentful of his father’s domineering presence. (“Talley and Son” is the name of the family clothing factory, named after Eldon’s older and favored brother, who died in 1917.) Now we learn of Eldon’s adultery with the family maid, Viola Platt, and of his illegitimate child Avalaine Platt, who’s thought of as the town whore. And now there’s Buddy’s adultery with Avalaine — Buddy is Eldon’s son, which makes Avalaine his half-sister, which complicates an already difficult mess. And now Eldon’s wisecracking sister Lottie is dying of radiation poisoning. And Olive, Buddy’s wife, feels uncomfortable living in the Talley home. And sister Sally dreams of breaking free of the house and family. And, and . . . Get the point?

Finally, we learn of an offer to buy out the family clothing factory. Should they sell? Who cares? We’ve got too much on our minds. Far too much for one play. Lanford Wilson has served up more pathos and angst than can be swallowed in one evening. It got to the point where I sat in numb anticipation of each new revelation, each crisis that I had already seen somewhere else. Trying to display the great American family in all its glorious decay, Wilson became heavy-handed: he forced the play.

Maybe because they were overburdened by so much hostility, the actors never conveyed themselves as an ensemble. Instead of a family in strife, they depicted a bunch of pissed-off individuals who acted as if they had only recently met. I felt stranded in the audience, uninvolved.

Director Vic Flessas didn’t know what to do with all the people who filled the stage. His use of Timmy Talley (John Graham) is a good example. Graham does a fine job of portraying Timmy, who’s still youthful and sentimental as he narrates the opening scene and comes to grips with his own death. The playwright has set up an intriguing compact between Timmy and the audience (we both know he’s dead yet must wait for the news to catch up with the family), but the director fritters away any dramatic tension that knowledge could create by using Timmy as so much useless furniture — taking up space and getting in other people’s way. Timmy’s continued presence onstage serves more to detract from than to enhance the story.

The production is also weakened by the inconsistent performances of a few leads. Page Hearn, as Eldon, is lost in a maze of conflicting motivations and emotions. He also comes across as pathetically young, younger even than his children. His spiteful glares at his wife, Netta (Valerie Gorman), were more appropriate for an angry child than for the defensive husband he’s supposed to be. His dramatic assertion of control at the play’s close rang hollow and contrived. Gorman was similarly unclear as Netta, never showing clearly how much she cared about anything she said.

Still, a number of the actors gave engaging performances. Dean Peerman was excellent as Mr. Talley, the grandfather, a crotchety old man tenaciously clinging to his eroding sanity and his control of family affairs. Rick Kabialis was also marvelous as Buddy Talley, on leave from a war far less heroic, far less romantic, than he’d imagined. Kabialis portrayed a man perpetually struggling with the conflict between responsibility to family and his personal desire to chuck it all. His expressions and mannerisms made his character tangible, and were great fun to watch. Dusty Walsh gave a solid performance as Olive, Buddy’s wife, a difficult role that could easily be done at a constant whine. Walsh made me care for Olive as well as wish she would shut up. Laura Wunderlich was light and emotive as the love-struck Sally (yes, love rears its rosy head and offers hope for the future, but this is only peripheral to the main story). And Sharlet Webb was superbly mannered and understated as Viola Platt, the family maid trying to warn Eldon before the illegitimate truth explodes in his face. These performances stood out in an otherwise flat production of a difficult, muddled story.