at Center Theater
There were six people in the audience. Five sat on one side of the crescent-shaped house, and I sat on the other. It was an unfortunate arrangement because, during the prologue of Talley’s Folly, Matt (played by Brian Zoldessy) addresses the audience directly. Which means that for almost half the prologue Zoldessy spoke to me one-on-one. I felt uncomfortable. I wanted to respond honestly but was afraid that I’d sabotage the actor’s performance if I stuck out my tongue at him. And so I tried to match his concerned, slightly amused expression as he looked me in the eyes and spoke in this really phony Yiddish accent. We had engaged in a contract of dissembling, a theater of lies.
The fundamental lie is the script itself, which won playwright Lanford Wilson a Pulitzer in 1980. Basically it’s a cornball love story featuring only two characters, Matt Friedman and Sally Talley. The time is July 4, 1944, and the scene is the boat house on the Talley homestead in Lebanon, Missouri. Although Matt and Sally have only spent a week together–and that week was the summer before–Matt has driven down from Saint Louis to propose. So he gives her the hard sell. She resists; he persists. Eventually they bare their souls in big monologues revealing the traumas that misshaped their lives. Then, having licked one another’s wounds, they decide to elope.
Here’s the kicker: Matt’s Jewish and Sally isn’t. Shocking, eh? Well, it’s supposed to be, judging from how frequently Wilson makes a point of it. What’s more, Matt confides that his family was murdered by French and German anti-Semites, leading him to resolve never to bring a child into such an unjust world. But it all works out nicely since Sally’s big revelation is that she can never bear children. So I guess this is one of those love-against-the-odds tales. Hope for the emotionally crippled and all that. Pardon me if I don’t bawl my eyes out.
Wilson must have contrived this humble romance with HEAVY SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS for liberals with IQs lower than Alan Alda’s. Then Wilson ladles on the midwestern Americana–so much pointless exposition about the Talley family–as if he believed he could make the play more realistic by drenching it in mundane minutiae. It doesn’t work, and this production’s tape loop of frog and bird sound effects doesn’t help much.
But even the most contrived and lamely manipulative plays can sometimes be salvaged by good acting. In this case, however, Brian Zoldessy (Matt) and Debbie Simmons (Sally) only compound the lie.
It took me well over an hour to tune out Zoldessy’s Yiddish accent, which is as humiliating (or should be) as it is insulting. That left only 15 minutes when I could concentrate on the dialogue instead of the ridiculous slide whistle of a speech pattern that all but assassinated Zoldessy’s characterization. And slipping out from underneath this accent, every now and then, was the actor’s real voice. Each time, the actor’s voice shamed the affectation of the character’s.
Debbie Simmons attempts a rather preposterous accent herself, which she must have picked up playing Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. Why is it that when midwesterners try to sound midwestern, it comes out as some crude parody of a southern accent? Anyway, Simmons’s accent comes and goes too, but fortunately it goes more often and takes its time coming back. So there are actually moments when you can, sort of, take Sally seriously. Like when Matt makes an analogy about how people are eggs afraid of being broken and Sally hesitates. She’s about to say something–take a risk, open up, whatever–but she doesn’t. You get a glimpse of Sally’s vulnerability, and Simmons pulls this moment off well. But this and a handful of other times when Sally comes into focus must necessarily be measured against an overall soapy, blurry characterization. And so once more the ephemeral truth highlights the incumbent lie.
This production has an overwhelmingly academic look, and for a very good reason. Millikin Productions is a function of Millikin University’s theater department, and they’ve made the trip up here from Decatur to go professional. Director David Golden is the department chairman, Zoldessy the acting professor, and Simmons the star graduate. They play these parts with vast credibility. That is, Golden directs like a department chairman, making gratuitous and active (if slightly awkward) use of all the stage levels and acting areas. At least he keeps you awake. Zoldessy, for his part, creates such an impenetrable display of acting technique that you can’t behold either the actor or his character. And Simmons is a study in undergraduate baby fat, too young to pass for the 31-year-old Sally Talley, and too green to sustain this illusion of professional theater.
There’s something about Simmons that, well, I see her there on the threshold of a life in the theater, and it’s not unlike the situation Sally’s in, taking a chance and running off with Matt to Saint Louis. Sure, it’s an accident of casting, but the parallel imparts a subliminal truth to an otherwise hokey play. And it plants a little worry in my head, the sort of worry I suppose most people have when they balk at the future: what disillusionments lie ahead of the illusions we embrace?
That Talley’s Folly is contrived doesn’t make it a bad love story. Nothing could be more contrived than Romeo and Juliet. But Talley’s Folly doesn’t have Shakespeare’s poetry and sheer enthrallment with life to elevate it, to make it more than a machine. Now if an actor, like Dr. Frankenstein, were to somehow combine the playwright’s quaint technology with the shape of a human being, so that the thing got up and walked through a doorway, would we scream, “It’s alive!”? Maybe. Apparently it worked when Judd Hirsch and Trish Hawkins created the roles of Matt and Sally. But I don’t know for sure because I wasn’t there. Nor was I on the selection committee when they awarded this play a Pulitzer.