‘Talley’s Folly’ Dances Through the Holiday Season at Theater J

Talley’s Folly – now in its final week at GALA Hispanic Theatre on 14th Street – is a waltz. Meaning, it’s not a salsa. And it’s not a hustle, a tango or even a hot pasodoble.

On the other hand, it’s not a polka. Nor is it a square dance—though it may seem square to some—and it’s definitely not a Russian kazotsky, an Israeli hora or an Irish jig.

It’s a waltz. A stately dance that demands two people moving in perfect time, Talley’s Folly is a celebration of human frailty and hope.

Erin Weaver (Sally Talley) and John Taylor Phillips (Matt Friedman) in Theater J's production of Talley's Folly. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Erin Weaver (Sally Talley) and John Taylor Phillips (Matt Friedman) in Theater J’s production of Talley’s Folly. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Written in 1979, Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is about two people who waltz into an unlikely love. Of course, there are trials to overcome. The play, after all, is rooted in rural Missouri. Bigotry rules, and foreigners are suspicious.

The play opens on a moonlit summer night in 1944. Matt Friedman, a 40-ish immigrant Jewish accountant from far-off St. Louis, has come to claim an unlikely bride, a woman he met – and fell in love with – a year earlier on a week-long visit to the town.

She is Sally Talley, the 31-year-old spinster daughter of one of the wealthiest families in town. The Talleys are factory owners who hate unions. They are also openly anti-Semitic. (For them, the only thing worse than FDR is a communist, which is what they assume all Jews, and especially foreign-born Jews, to be.)

Sally is a nurse’s assistant at the local hospital, where she tends to the wounded veterans of the war that her family loves. (The war, Matt wryly observes, is good for business.)

Matt is played by John Taylor Phillips, a gentle soul whose facile jokes and wildly imaginative tales both enchant and bewilder the sharp-tongued woman he’s come to woo. His opening remarks are addressed to the audience—much like the stage manager in Our Town—as he promises to keep the show at 97 minutes.

Erin Weaver portrays Sally as a tough-minded rebel, enraged by the hypocrisy she sees all around her, yet unable to pull herself out of the nest where she is thoroughly despised. (Sally, we learn, is a woman who is fired from teaching at Sunday School when she ditches the Bible in favor of a book that criticizes capitalism. She also supports the unions in a factory town.)

The two are perfectly cast for this verbal, and occasionally physical, duel. He is both funny and morose, tossing off imitations of Bogart and Marx. She is coquettish and rejecting by turns.

Aaron Posner, who in private life is married to Weaver, is the director who pushes these two together, then pulls them apart, keeping the tension alive and the sparks flying as the tug of war turns into a waltz.

Although billed as a duet, Talley’s Folly is really a trio. The third character in the play is Paige Hathaway’s set, which is so haunting and mysterious and downright funny that one could easily spend the whole 97 minutes pondering all the bits and pieces making up this Victorian structure.

Erin Weaver (Sally Talley) and John Taylor Phillips (Matt Friedman) in Theater J's production of Talley's Folly. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Erin Weaver (Sally Talley) and John Taylor Phillips (Matt Friedman) in Theater J’s production of Talley’s Folly. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Known as a “folly” because it has absolutely no logic or purpose, this one—built by a miserly uncle—is a boathouse resembling a gazebo. There are holes in the floor and snakes, Sally warns, lurking underneath. They are waiting, one assumes, for big city accountants to bite.

This is a spell-binding, magical and moving show, with just seven more performances left.

[Read Ian Thal’s review in DCMTA.]

Although Talley’s Folly casts a warm light over the darkness of winter, it is also a familiar light, having been produced many times in the US, and at Theater J itself just 15 years ago.

Theater J’s next production is something altogether different. Called The Jewish Queen Lear, it’s the first English language version of Mirele Efros. The play, considered a masterpiece of the Yiddish stage, was written by Jacob Gordin in 1898. Yet few Americans have seen it.

Bringing Yiddish drama to the American stage—in the language that most of us understand—is a project well worth the talent of Theater J. The play opens in March at Georgetown University.

In the meantime, there is still time for readers of DCMTA to see Talley’s Folly. Just waltz on over to GALA Theatre, where Theater J is temporarily housed while its permanent home, the Edlavitch DCJCC, is undergoing renovation.

Running Time: 97 minutes, with no intermission.

Talley’s Folly plays through December 30, 2018, at Theater J at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210 or purchase them online.