Thunder Road Ensemble
at Cafe Voltaire
THE VILLAGE WOOING
Single Action Theatre Company
at the Shattered Globe Theatre
Lanford Wilson's Pulitzer-winning one-act Talley's Folly (the prequel to his equally popular 5th of July) feels as if the playwright wrote it the way it's played--moment by moment. Up until the end the outcome seems painfully uncertain. But when Wilson's lonely lovers finally do merge, the event also seems richly inevitable.
In real life, proto-lovers constantly meet and part, never quite sure how close they've come to the love they're seeking. It's easy to imagine that the two volatile extremes in Talley's Folly--Matt Friedman, a 42-year-old Jewish accountant, and Waspy Sally Talley, a 31-year-old near spinster--might never connect.
It takes Wilson 97 minutes and all the art he can muster to overcome the challenges he sets himself. He also puts this shaky mating dance in historical perspective: it's 1944 and Sally, who's been nursing wounded soldiers, worries that the world will never be the same--or, worse, that it will be, and another depression will crush her hopes. It's not a good year for plans, especially the long-term plans lovers envision.
Sally has other problems, too. A liberal in Lebanon, Missouri, she's been fired from Sunday school for refusing to reduce the Bible to a gloss on the Talleys. Outspoken and out of place, she quarrels with her kin, only one of whom supports the friendship she struck up the year before with Matt. The charming, confident Matt (also the narrator) has returned to enemy territory to complete the romance. Despite their different origins, he sees a bond between these two "private people," outsiders who fit each other better than they do the world. He lures Sally to her family's Victorian boat house, now romantic in its decay. With help from the moonlight and a band playing across the river he overcomes her evasions and fears.
Matt calls this wooing a waltz--indeed, Wilson has given the play all the tension and release of three-quarter time. Similarly, Sally and Matt approach each other almost like dancers, though each in a characteristic way--his as inquisitorial as it is heartfelt, hers reticent but curious. They advance and retreat, but each move brings them closer together. (Terrence McNally copied this technique very faithfully in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.)
Dan Taube's perfectly paced staging, a first production by the Thunder Road Ensemble, captures that approach-avoidance waltz in more than just the blocking. It has to, saddled as it is with a threadbare set in a cellar space, with no hint of blue light to suggest the moon and only a paltry sound design to evoke the distant band. (Even a tape of crickets would have helped.)
Happily, what comes through rich and sweet is Wilson's music--psychologically supple and driven by hard-earned wish fulfillment. Though both actors are at least a decade too young for their roles, they manage to chart this emotional territory. Steve Cell refuses to turn Matt into an ethnic tour de force, concentrating on showing how the character's late-blooming love gives him a calling; his Matt seems charged with destiny as well as several powerful arguments for a mid-life marriage.
More than any Sally I've seen, Deborah King emphasizes the character's delicacy over her midwestern flintiness. In fact, King plays Sally even younger than she looks--which at times makes Sally verge on schoolgirl shyness. (It's as if King wants her to pass for Emily Webb in Our Town.) Sally's vulnerability makes her hunger for love seem even more overwhelming. Still, a tad more gumption and old-maid irritability would have made Sally's eventual surrender all the more touching.
In the very concentrated one-act The Village Wooing, George Bernard Shaw has concocted a more whimsical courtship in which the woman leads. This play's enough to justify Shaw's idea that "Men and women are always driving one another mad"--or perhaps into a deeper sanity. Shaw's recalcitrant lovers are as unlike as Wilson's duo: a cranky, independent travel writer and a garrulous telephone operator. They meet on a cruise ship, but however unromantic their first encounter--she pursues, he retreats--it changes his life, from curmudgeonly creativity to shopkeeping.
Neither person seems suitable for the other--just the sort of mating challenge Shaw delighted in. Spiritual to the point of abstraction, the unnamed male character is a confirmed widower, a spiritual cousin to Henry Higgins--prickly, cynical, and serious. She is common and decisive--as he puts it, "positive, masterful, and acquisitive," a casebook study in what Shaw called the Life Force in the cool pursuit of its mate. (Or, as she puts it, "I could put up with him.")
They meet again coincidentally in the village where she runs a switchboard and toils as a ribbon clerk at a general store. Slowly, and with a skill that's as elegant as it is predatory, she maneuvers him into buying the shop and keeping her as an employee and later a spouse, pointing out to him that it's "cheaper to keep a wife than to pay an assistant."
They both drive a fascinating bargain. She domesticates him into a much more sensible life than poetic flights will ever provide, but he'll lift her sights above household matters, too.
Robert Koon's wise and warm staging for the Single Action Theatre Company is, as Shaw might say, very "taking"--especially in the cunning contrast between Rob Stormont's head-in-the-clouds travel writer and Meridith Baier's no-nonsense clerk. Her seductive common sense vanquishes his philosophy, but as Shaw neatly demonstrates, the writer lets it happen: he's long craved this excuse to steady himself with a strong woman.