The Purple Rose’s founder, Jeff Daniels, has a special relationship to Lanford Wilson, and every time the company produces one of his plays, the program tells some version of the story. Wilson may be best known for his 1973 Hot l Baltimore, but it was Talley’s Folly, now playing at the Purple Rose through May 23, that won him a Pulitzer in 1980. Here’s how Daniels fits in. Wilson’s Fifth of July, the “third” of the Talley trilogy (written first, followed by two prequels), launched Daniels’ acting career in 1978 at the famous off-Broadway Circle Repertory Theatre. Director Marshall Mason, who with Lanford Wilson founded Circle Rep, had talent-spotted him in an EMU production and brought him to New York.
Daniels remained close to Wilson, who died several years ago; they were kindred spirits. Both from the Midwest, they worked hard, mastered their craft, and despite the glory and recognition New York brought them, often chose to write about small towns or the rural Midwest. And I realized, watching Talley’s Folly, that Daniels also wrote a trilogy. While his rude and bawdy tall tales about the Soady clan in da Yoop is nothing like Wilson’s Talley trilogy in style, both are rooted in their geography, and both tell the story of several generations of a family, written out of chronological sequence, using prequels. But enough dime store psychoanalysis.
Talley’s Folly recounts the wooing of Sally Talley by Matt Friedman, a Lithuanian Jew, one 1944 summer evening in her family’s boathouse. The Talleys are big fish in stiffly conservative Fort Lebanon, Missouri. A Jewish immigrant accountant isn’t what they had in mind for their daughter, but that’s not the relevant issue for her. Only two characters populate this play, which often seems to be about the collision of a Neil Simon male with a Tennessee Williams female. The sparring and bantering initially suggest screwball comedy where pretend-hate turns to true-love-with-wisecracks, but Talley’s Folly builds to an unexpectedly dramatic and poignant climax.
Directed by Angie Kane Ferrante, this production has a busy-ness to it–everything from the set to the characters’ diction seems a little overstuffed. Set designer Sarah Pearline and prop designer Danna Segrest seem to have found an actual old boathouse somewhere and reassembled it on the Purple Rose stage. As Sally Talley, Aphrodite Nikolovski’s Southern accent sometimes appears to become unstuck, but actually, it’s the opposite: the playwright’s own stage direction has her reverting to Southern Ozark English only when she’s agitated. And I had some trouble believing that the peripatetic European childhood and St. Louis adulthood of Matt (Robert Najarian) would result in an accent that seems so classically Lower East Side. I wished everyone, including the playwright himself, would calm down a bit, and just let the story tell itself, but it all more or less works. I love that the Purple Rose continues to pay homage to Wilson, and I can forgive a lot.
PR hasn’t announced its 2016 season yet, and I’m going to be very, very disappointed if doesn’t include one of the other plays in the Talley trilogy.