If an evening of quiet laughter, tears, and sweet romance is what you're looking for, then the Florida Rep's current offering of Lanford Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning play, Talley's Folly is for you. Set in 1944 rural Missouri, Talley's Folly tells the story of Sally Talley (Rachel Burttram) and Matt Friedman (Chris Clavelli), two unmarried and middle-aged lovers who are reunited one summer evening after a 7 day courtship that occurred one year prior.
Talley's Folly premiered on Broadway in 1980 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and ran a total of 286 performances, was Tony Nominated for Best Play (losing to Children of a Lesser God), and then winning the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Since it's original inception, Talley's Folly has been a popular choice for regional theatre's nation-wide due to its accessibility regarding cast-size, and scenic requirements. Having a cast of only two actors and a single unit set is appealing in its simplicity. But never under estimate the difficulty of the simplest of things. If the actor's aren't 100% right for the roles it will be obvious from the start, as there is nowhere for them to hide. If the setting is not perfection you might not notice it at first, but as you take it in for a continuous 97 minutes you may begin to see its faults. Rest assured however, the Florida Rep is at the top of its game and does not disappoint.
Rachel Burttram turns in a true tour-de-force performance as Sally Talley, the lonely unmarried nurse's aid from a wealthy family. What Burttram does so well is to create a character full of mystery and intrigue. A character that you instantly know has a troubled past, but is oh so good at hiding it and keeping others at bay. As the play unfolds and the walls of Sally's defense begin to crumble, Burttram is electric. Watching Burttram's Sally unravel before your eyes only to be reborn as a newly free woman is revelatory. From the slightest of glances to the biggest of fits Burttram has unleashed such an utterly believable and complex character that we can instantly identify Sally as not only broken, but authentically human.
While Florida Rep Company Member, Chris Clavelli, may not seem instantly right as Sally's jovially romantic Jewish love interest, he carries a certain charm about him that is undeniable. Whether it is an authentically 1940's European Jewish charm is definitely up for debate, but charm nonetheless. Clavelli works hard to embody the role of Matt Friedman, an accountant who appreciates the challenge of solving tough problems. Here in the Talley's folly (A gorgeous dilapidated Victorian boathouse) he has to solve his toughest problem to date: Sally. Clavelli carries most of the show's dialogue, complete with hilarious impersonations of the Talley family, haunting stories of his past, and painfully direct questions regarding Sally's. He is definitely in full command of the dialogue and the role. However, in order for the role of Matt Friedman to be completely successful, the audience has to fall in love with him immediately. He has to sweep you away with the lilt of his accent, and the earnestness and nostalgia of his story. Clavelli does deliver all of these things eventually, but not at the start. While it would be easy for me to say that I wish a more traditional casting choice had been made, it would be discrediting Clavelli's hard work in making the audience love him in spite of his non-Jewish heritage. Clavelli really does turn in a wonderfully compelling performance, I just would have loved to see a real mench in the role.
The final unspoken characters of the play are undoubtedly the Scenic Design by Richard Crowell and the Lighting Design by Matthew McCarthy. These two designers have created an absolutely stunning setting. While Burttram and Claveli are such fine actors that they could have easily performed this piece from an empty stage with one light and still given the audience an incredible evening, they are elevated to something much much more by the world that has been created around them. As an audience you never doubt for a second where these characters are, but you might just forget you are actually in a theatre. Crowell's long forgotten boathouse with broken lattice and unfinished cutouts is a literal representation of the broken and unfinished characters that inhabit it. Crowell's gorgeous setting combined with Jenn William's keen eye for set dressing has created a world that transcends the limitations of theatre. In addition, Matthew McCarthy's lighting design has created a 97-minute sunset that progresses with the action of the play. Starting with shades of sun and sky and ending with a bathing moonlight, it happens so gradually that you forget that mere stage lights are creating the effect and would almost believe an actual sunset is happening before your eyes.