LOWELL — Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Talley’s Folly” traces an unlikely romance built on a fragile foundation of hope. The Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s heartwarming production unfolds with steady determination, breaking through any jaded cynicism with a touching commitment to life’s possibilities.
Set in 1944 during World War II, when pessimism from the Depression is giving way to the optimism of economic prosperity, “Talley’s Folly” follows Matt Friedman’s (Benim Foster) persistent wooing of Sally Talley (Kathleen Wise). Matt opens the play, directly addressing the audience from the front of the auditorium, explaining his goals and his time limitations (“I’m told we have 97 minutes, no intermission,” he announces). Hopping up onto Randall Parsons’s delightfully dilapidated boathouse — the folly of the title — he begins his tale with “once upon a time” and declares he’s hoping the evening will proceed with the easy rhythm of a waltz.
Reality is, of course, much more complicated than a fairy tale, and Wilson’s gift as a playwright was his ability to bring to life characters on the margins of society, far from fairy castles and knights in shining armor. We soon learn that the previous summer Matt and Sally’s romance blossomed in the crumbling boathouse where the action is now set, but Matt returned to St. Louis, several hours from Sally’s family farm, and despite his daily letters, she has been avoiding him.
At first, the reasons seem obvious: Matt is Jewish, an immigrant, and as a single man over 40, there are questions about why he’s never married. Sally, a nurse’s aide at a nearby hospital, is over 30 (although she only admits to 28), and after an experience in which she says she was “unlucky in love,” she’s resigned herself to a life as an eccentric old maid.
Neither character is conventionally appealing, and director Kyle Fabel resists the temptation to make either one of these very private people too sympathetic too soon. Foster’s Matt is a little brash, working a little too hard to be funny, even seeming irritating to Sally. As Sally, Wise is so withdrawn, so brusque, it’s hard to believe there might have been a spark between these two.
Matt recognizes Sally’s evasive tactics, along with her willingness to meet in the magical boathouse, as encouragement. He tells jokes and stories, finally revealing the tragedy that has kept him from sharing his life with someone. With a great deal more coaxing, Sally finally lets down her own guard to reveal why she has never married.
The beauty of this Merrimack Repertory Theatre production is the way Fabel and his performers build these little moments of connection between two characters who had always expected to be alone. When Matt offers a metaphor of people as eggs — “Gotta be hatched or boiled or beat up into something like a lot of other eggs. Then you’re cookin’ ” — it’s almost as if the audience can see the faint line of a crack appearing in these individuals’ hard, protective shells. In spite of ourselves, we begin to root not just for Matt and Sally, but for everyone who hesitates before risking his or her heart on something or someone for fear of being hurt.
The battered boathouse frame evokes Victorian elegance — “froufrou” as our hero describes it — wearied by time, the perfect metaphor for the faded hopes of two people who didn’t think they could be happy, but find, in fact, they can.