The story of Matt and Sally reckoning with their feelings for each other will take 97 minutes, without an intermission, Matt tells us upfront. Those 97 minutes take place in real-time, in a beautiful ruin of a rural Missouri boathouse in 1944.
They also take place as a waltz, he half-explains in his musical Eastern European accent – that is, these minutes play out as a negotiation, a rhythmic balancing act of desire and restraint.
Indeed, it’s a complicated hour and 37 minutes once Matt, a Jewish accountant, has driven down from St. Louis to propose to Sally, a “radical old maid” of 31 whom he met briefly last summer.
Sally’s resistance and their gradual rapprochement is the story of “Talley’s Folly,” Lanford Wilson’s deft and intimate two-hander, which won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
“Talley’s Folly” opens the season for Portland Stage Company, which presents the show both live on stage through Nov. 15 and streaming online (which is how I viewed the show) through Nov. 22. Under the direction of Sally Wood, and starring the marvelous PSC veterans – and real-life couple – David Mason and Kathy McCafferty, this production is a rich, nuanced, and tender portrait of an uncommon love between uncommon people.
And it all happens in this gazebo-shaped boathouse, which was built by Sally’s eccentric uncle – the one member of her wealthy factory-owning family, she says, who didn’t care what people thought of him.
On stage, this wooden structure is whimsical and wonderfully precarious, tall and open to the sky like a cathedral ruin, and its dock slants down to actual water, in Anita Stewart’s ever-impressive set design. Riddled with ropes, paddles, and life preservers, framed by reeds and a constantly shifting evening sky (Christopher Akerlind’s gorgeous lighting design), the setting feels at once like a sanctuary for Matt and Sally and an extension of their idiosyncratic selves as they circle the thing they share.
To be sure, Sally is not thrilled to see Matt at first. She has replied to only one of his many letters and, she complains, is sick of him chasing after her. Her rich Protestant family is rather less than thrilled. When Matt knocked on her family’s door, he recounts, Sally’s sister behaved like a fish and her brother greeted him with: “You’re Sally’s Jewish friend, aren’t you?”
You can see why Matt might not fit in among the town’s elite. Besides his accent and his Jewishness, he is ebulliently quick-witted, socialist-leaning, and unconventional in affect, and Mason makes superb work of his exuberance. Lanky and loose-limbed in a charcoal pinstripe suit, his portrayal is rich in physical and vocal frolics as Matt imitates a grandpa worker bee, Humphrey Bogart, and the Missouri accents of Sally’s people; as he clowns, riffs, and plays; as he raises difficult things to the light by telling them as stories. Nearly everything he says is a delighted performance.
Sally is as quick-witted as Matt but – at least initially – is more practical, no-nonsense, frequently exasperated with him. “You do not have the perception God gave lettuce,” she seethes.
But she is drawn back again and again to openness and warmth, as they remember their first date or talk of war in Europe, and McCafferty nimbly navigates Sally’s approaches and retreats, giving full range to Sally’s emotional complexity and letting us gradually see the fear that drives her resistance.
Sally, too, has caused some waves in her community: she was fired as a Sunday school teacher for having the kids read Thorstein Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” She and Matt both sympathize with unions and have a harsh critique of capitalism, and as they discuss labor and capital, you can see in their body language the simple relief of being with someone like-minded.
And Sally and Matt have each buried a trauma that will be unearthed by the other. “We’re a lot alike, you know,” Matt observes, “to be so different, to be such private people.”
Mason and McCafferty give these smart lovers a deliciously real and unfiltered rapport. As the two approach and retreat from each other, moving as they do between economics debates, confessions, and antics on ice skates, their 97 minutes feel somehow both leisurely and taut with purpose and stakes. In the ease of their laughter, the simpatico abundance of their conversation, and the frankness with which they hear each other, you get the sense that these two people will never be bored together. Mason and McCafferty make these characters’ affinity feel real, earned, and a solace.
“Talley’s Folly” is a beautifully crafted dramatic work, waltzing as it does between the personal and political, and grounding the epic period concerns of the U.S. and Europe – the wars, capitalism and unions, borders and bigotry – in the lives of two very particular and very endearing people. They fear for both the world and their own hearts, and yet their bravery, in PSC’s beautifully performed production, persists.
“We’re so terrified,” Matt says. “But still we hope.” Amen to that, for all of us.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Theater, live and at home
• Since premiering at Portland Stage Company in 2004, Maine-raised playwright and actor John Cariani’s “Almost, Maine” has skyrocketed to international fame. This year, Cariani launched its quirky, whimsical love stories in book form, and now Portland Stage celebrates with live online readings from the book by Cariani, in the free three-part digital series “Almost, Maine – The Writer’s Cut,” on Nov. 14 and 21. FMI: https://www.portlandstage.org/. To register online: https://sforce.co/2HTcLN2.
• Many of us mourned the death earlier this year of the iconic and much-beloved U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. And in the new play “RBG: One Step at a Time,” playwright, actor, and theater producer Michael Tobin lauds her onstage at the Footlights at Falmouth. This one-woman show stars local actor Jackie Oliveri, herself a force of nature. Through Nov. 21; FMI: https://bit.ly/32DmE8G.
• Another locally written play, theater artist Allison McCall’s “Waiting for Alice” – billed as a Beckett- and Ionesco-inflected exploration of Wonderland – will receive online workshop readings through Mad Horse’s new works series By Local, Nov. 15 and 22. Mad Horse also continues its Artist Chit-Chat series, which brings together local artists from across disciplines, with a third installment on Nov. 20. The company will also be sharing audio performances from LA Theatre Works archives – “The Motherf***er with the Hat” and “Behind the Sheet” – through Dec. 15. FMI: www.madhorse.com.
• A story of genius, mental illness, and math will play out both onstage and online in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the Players’ Ring presents both in-person and streaming performances of David Auburn’s “Proof,” Nov. 13-22. FMI: www.playersring.org.
• Finally, actor and playwright Bess Welden has been keeping busy during this time of dark theaters: she adapted her one-woman show “Passion of the Hausfrau” into a web series and launches two new episodes this month. And the Maine Playwrights Festival is workshopping a revision of her play “Madeleines,” with a free online reading Nov. 14 featuring the fine local actors Karen Ball, Julia Langham, and Deborah Paley, with direction and dramaturgy by Dan Burson. On Facebook.
— Megan Grumbling