The Folly of Life: A review of FST’s “Talley’s Folly”

The Florida Studio Theatre recently opened a Pulitzer Prize-winning play called Talley’s Folley by Lanford Wilson, part of a three-part series (Talley’s Trilogy) about the Talley family. This play chronicles the halting romance between the artfully named Sally Talley, a wealthy Protestant woman from a prominent Missouri family, and Matt Friedman, a Jewish immigrant tax specialist, who intends to marry Sally (Maren Bush). Matt (Dominic Comperatore) begins the show by involving the audience in his plans to woo sweet but evasive Sally, who instantly reminded me of Mad Men‘s Betsy Draper (played by January Jones).  

Matt is a bit difficult to countenance at the beginning of the production — he has the air of an overly-enthusiastic JDate, too certain of Sally’s interest, despite her very clear protestations to the contrary. She even resorts to biting him! Sally is a delightful nurse who seems, for much of the play, to be kindly tolerating the overbearing Matt. As the one-act, 90-minute play unfolds, he begins to reveal that they spent a week together the previous summer hanging out in the Talley family’s folly, a fanciful boathouse that is a place of refuge for Sally. Matt has been writing unanswered letters to Sally; but he has also been secretly contacting her Aunt Lotte, the only person in the Talley family that seems to truly care about Sally. Lotte realizes that Matt may be the answer to wistful Sally’s lack of interest in her many suitors. Lotte knows Sally’s secret and clearly believes that Matt’s brashness and calculated admiration for Sally may shatter the beautiful crystal shell that surrounds her niece.

Sally also manages to break through Matt’s bluster and endless storytelling to cajole him into revealing his own secrets. The play is set during World War II, and Matt’s mysterious lineage is linked to the circumstances of the war, which  has affected both of their lives very deeply. Both Matt and Sally are political figures in their own right. Sally’s family thinks Matt is a communist or at the very least a socialist, and their exchange about the folly of labeling the world in terms of “isms” is very relevant today. Sally, for her part, is uncomfortable with her family’s wealth and has a strong interest in economic theory. In fact, she was fired from teaching Sunday school for encouraging her students to read Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class and is very troubled that her family’s factory workers have never unionized. This too is very timely as we have been watching the twilight of unions in the past year.

Although the play is ostensibly rather light-hearted in its approach, its themes are very deep and interesting to consider during difficult economic times.  Sally has been raised with a strong work ethic (her family even believes that seeing movies is a waste of time), and Matt has thrown himself into his work helping his clients find loopholes to avoid paying their taxes. Matt has come to believe that despite his difficult history, he deserves to find a bit of happiness with a woman whose values he shares. Sally, in turn, idolizes her uncle, who built follies, which are non-utilitarian architectural structures that suggest a possible functionality; because he was the only one in her family who did precisely what he wished to do in life. As Sally tells her stories, Matt peels back some of her layers to find her hopes and dreams that have lain dormant for many years.  

Talley’s Folly is focused on a period in history (1944) when America was gaining world prominence but was still feeling the aftershocks of the Great Depression. Sally and Matt are coming out of their personal depression to find love with one another. As we experience an ongoing recession while public officials discuss austerity measures and attempts to scale back spending, the themes of the play resonate. In bleak times, where is the room for folly?

For tickets go to floridastudiotheatre.org.  The play runs through August 26.

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