NJT revisits love story set in mid-Missouri

ABOVE AND BELOW RIGHT: Meghan Maguire and Shaun Sheley perform in the New Jewish Theatre production of ‘Talley’s Folly.’  Photo: John Lamb

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Lanford Wilson’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Talley’s Folly,” which tells of an odd couple romance set in 1944 rural Missouri, has been brought back to the stage of the New Jewish Theatre in a splendid production.

With empathetic direction by Deanna Jent and spot-on performances by Shaun Sheley and Meghan Maguire, the current NJT production is a satisfying evening of theater whose romantic quaintness seems well-suited to the holiday season.  Wilson, who was born in Lebanon, Mo., and whose late mother lived in Ozark, Mo. for many years, no doubt derived much of the storyline and “feel” of “Talley’s Folly” from his own experience. “Talley’s Folly” is one of a trilogy of plays that deals with the same Ozarks community, the others being “The Fifth of July,” and “Talley’s Son.”

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“Talley’s Folly,” which runs just over 90 minutes without intermission, poses the question: Can a self-described “hairy Jewish accountant” and Holocaust-era escapee, find love and happiness with a feisty, too-smart for her backwater, bigoted family, young Christian woman?

The courtship presented in the play indeed seems rather bizarre and doomed to failure almost from the start. Hopeless romantic Matt Friedman (Sheley), a 42-year-old St. Louis-based accountant of Lithuanian-German-Jewish origins, pines for the very reluctant and very practical Sally Talley (Maguire), a 31-year-old nurse’s aide who works in nearby Springfield, Mo. The setting, in Lebanon, Mo., is an elaborate, gazebo- shaped boathouse build by one of Sally’s eccentric but determined ancestors. Scenic designer Jason Coale deserves a major shout-out for his stunning set, which is as important an element in Wilson’s play as are Matt and Sally.

Matt, who had become smitten with Sally the previous year on a brief visit to her hometown, and who kept his idealized fantasy of her through correspondence and wishful thinking, arrives in Lebanon on July 4 to pursue his fumbling courtship. Despite Matt’s dogged determination to win her heart, Sally refuses to give in to her feelings for him in order to maintain her tough resistance to the hide-bound ignorance of her Ozark family. They resent the fact that she has gone to college and has come to reject their bigoted outlook on life, which includes overt anti-Semitism in general and a hatred of Friedman in particular.

How a German-Jewish refugee could be drawn into a romantic relationship with a strong-willed Christian woman from the rural part of Missouri seems at first difficult to comprehend. But Wilson’s script empowers the two and only characters in the play to break through their respective protective shells. Their shared pain makes it possible for them to draw slowly into a mutually pleasing relationship.

Jent’s energetic direction and engaging performances by the actors keep the action from getting bogged down by a rather talky script. While the romance is movingly accomplished, there are some disquieting aspects of Matt’s character.  His reaction to his displacement from war-torn Europe, which included severe trauma to his own sister, seems oddly disconnected.  He describes himself as a “hairy Jewish accountant,” tells a coarse, borderline anti-Jewish joke to his sweetheart and makes fun of her family for warning her against the perils of intermarriage.  There is also the poignant reality that Matt and Sally are ultimately drawn together by the fact he does not wish to have children and that (spoiler alert!) she, by reason of a prior illness, cannot bear children. While Matt’s feelings are understandable in view of what he went through, on one level they seem unbecoming and perplexing.

 “Talley’s Folly,” which enjoyed previous well-received runs at the NJT as well as at The Rep, holds up admirably after all these years. In the capable hands of Director Jent, and actors Sheley and Maguire, it’s a first- rate evening of theatrical entertainment.