Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, set in 1944 Missouri, runs at the Bathhouse Theatre through June 7.
Spring is in the air, and love is on the stage.
Seattle Repertory Theatre just presented John Patrick Shanley’s scrappy Irish romance “Outside Mullingar.” Now Seattle Public Theater closes its season with another sour-and-sweet love story, Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly.”
Theatrical romance is a tougher genre than it once was, given our escalated suspicions about the happy-ever-after business.
By Lanford Wilson. Through June 7, Seattle Public Theater at Bathhouse Theatre, 7312 W. Greenlake Drive N., Seattle; $18-$32 (206-524-1300 or seattlepublictheater.org).
But Wilson’s 1979 play won a Pulitzer Prize. And if it seems a bit old-fashioned and flawed now, it succeeds in giving us both an intimate and broader view of two interesting, seemingly mismatched lovers.
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Under Shana Bestock’s sensitive direction, the production begins with Matt Friedman, a burly, sweet-faced St. Louis accountant (played by the marvelously versatile Mike Dooly), addressing us directly, as friends, from a dilapidated boathouse in rural Missouri.
Among other things, this witty and exuberant fellow tells us, Thornton Wilder-style, exactly how long the show will last (97 minutes). And he confides that if this balmy evening in 1944 goes well, it will be “a waltz.” But true love wouldn’t be theatrical if it ever ran smooth. From Shakespeare on, stage couples have battled through their differences, defenses and fears before opening their hearts.
In “Talley’s Folly” (the folly is the boathouse, rendered in all its moldering Victorian glory by ace set designer Craig Wollam), the outcome feels probable but not inevitable. As one person pursues and the other evades, the story is how they might get to yes from no. And, by extension, how the world could come together after a brutal global war.
The courtship here isn’t a gliding waltz but a bout of hide-and-seek, with pursuer Matt seeking to know why his resistant beloved, Sally Talley (Rebecca Olson), is hiding out in the Ozarks as an “eccentric old maid” (she’s 31!) instead of marrying him.
The contrasts between the two are writ large. He’s a self-made Jewish immigrant of 42; she’s the daughter of rich, bigoted bible-belters, who consider Matt a “communist infidel.”
He is lumpish, bookish, tender, lonely. She is lithe and pragmatic, a nurse’s aide to wounded soldiers, an ex-cheerleader with a cynical streak.
We learn that one recent summer, they shared a rhapsodic week of slow dancing, canoodling and finding their outlook on politics, religion, humankind to be strikingly similar.
The middle play in a trilogy based loosely on Wilson’s Missouri clan (the others are “Talley & Son” and “Fifth of July”), “Talley’s Folly” is a lopsided work: Matt is so loquacious and engaging, so enterprising in his attempts to charm, that Olson’s Sally is often confined to listening, bristling and telling him to get lost (when she gets a word in edgewise).
Olson seethes and storms convincingly, but she and Bestock might have allowed us more glimpses of the ambivalence and attraction Sally is desperately trying to suppress.
Olson’s performance blooms, however, the more she engages with Dooly, who uncannily adopts Matt’s agile mind and pained soul. His reluctant retelling of Matt’s tragic early life is moving, as is Olson’s ultimate (if schematic) revelation of past heartbreak.
That their characters’ secret burdens synchronize is too neatly coincidental. But it served the purposes of the late Wilson, a humane lyrical realist in the American grain, and it’s a spring bouquet for the audience.