Set on July 4, 1944, Talley’s Folly concerns two characters who are revealed largely through exposition and lengthy monologues: Sally Talley, a nurse headed for self-imposed spinsterhood, and Matt Friedman, a liberal Jewish accountant fond of using comedy routines to mask his vulnerability.
The “folly” of the play’s title and the locale for the action is a boathouse that Sally’s Uncle Everett constructed in place of a gazebo he had hoped to build. Wilson opens the play using a Wilder-like frame, with Matt as narrator/stage manager conspiratorially explaining to the audience that they are about to witness a “once-upon-a-time” romance that could happen only in the theater.
When Matt narrates the history of his family—of a Prussian father and Ukrainian mother “indefinitely detained” by the Germans in World War I; of a Latvian sister tortured by the French so their father would divulge information he never had; and of himself, born in Lithuania and arriving as a refugee with his uncle from Norway via Caracas—he distances the painful story by narrating it in the third-person voice.
Because of his wandering family’s past, Matt considers himself non-nationalistic, feeling little allegiance to any political cause or “ism.” Although he escaped the draft because of his age, he is not unaffected by the war (which, he believes, governments deliberately prolong for economic reasons). Uncertain that there will ever be a time after this war, he refuses to bring another child into the world “to be killed for political purposes,” and thus he hesitates to marry Sally.
Sally yearns on this Independence Day to break free from a restrictive family that is anti-liberal, anti-Semitic, and anti-German—and, therefore, anti-Matt. Yet political, religious, and racial intolerance are not all that prevent her marriage. Years before, she was engaged to her high school sweetheart; their marriage portended a merger of two prominent families, but her father committed suicide during the Depression.
Finally, she reveals to Matt (and to the audience waiting to hear her secret) that an illness has left her sterile. Once her misconception that Matt is only claiming that he would never father a child in order to spare her the burden of not being able to give him one is cleared away, these two can unite.
The boathouse “folly” has always been, for Sally, a green world, a place of escape and magic. Matt and Sally leave the boathouse to return to a family and a community unprepared to accept them and ready to ostracize them, just as Matt, the stage manager again at play’s end, sends the audience out from the theater exactly ninety-seven minutes later into their imperfect world.
A dissonance exists between what Matt calls the “waltz” or “valentine” of this fairy tale the audience has been watching and the prejudice that pervades their world. Sally Talley’s folly, shared by Matt, is the courage to choose love in spite of the world’s unwillingness to dissolve barriers of class, nationality, politics, and religion.