The best way to discuss Lanford Wilson’s trilogy of plays about the Talley clan would probably be to ignore their order of production/publication and treat them as a single unified family chronicle, beginning with A Tale Told (as yet unpublished), which explores the family traumas and crises at the end of World War II, then Talley’s Folly (produced, 1979; published, 1980), the romance between the family oddball, Sally, and her middle-aged Jewish suitor, and finally 5th of July (produced, 1978; published, 1979), which jumps ahead thirty-three years to dramatize the plight of the Talleys born after World War II, illusioned in the 1960’s, and disillusioned in the 1970’s. At the same time, however, each play is a separate, powerful whole that can be appreciated on its own terms. This is especially true of Talley’s Folly, the most commercially successful of the three, indeed, of Lanford Wilson’s entire career.
Since the production of his first play, The Madness of Lady Bright in 1964, Wilson has been one of the most consistently stimulating, provocative, and—although clearly influenced by Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams among others—original of contemporary American playwrights. In plotting, characterization, and dialogue, he seems to be an “old-fashioned” realist, in attitude and awareness a thorough contemporary, and in theatrical approach, an experimenter.
Despite the color and variety in his work, however, all of the plays utilize one of three structural approaches. A few, primarily the domestic conflict plays such as Lemon Sky, 5th of July, and The Mound Builders, are conventionally realistic in organization. A small number of intimately related characters come into conflict over a single problem or cluster of problems, most often based on shifting family relationships. Another set of dramas, which might be called the “ensemble plays”—Balm in Gilead, The Hot l Baltimore, The Rimers of Eldritch—are put together much more elaborately. In these plays, an extremely large cast more or less splits into a series of character clusters, each with their own mini-plays to act out in the context of the whole. The rhythm and movement of these plays is controlled by juxtaposing the various groups against each other and fluidly moving between them, while gradually building an overall sense of meaning and direction until the whole finally jells. Then, at the other extreme, are the small, tightly focused plays, where everything is narrowed and intensified into a confrontation between two vital, troubled characters. Examples of this approach are his brilliant early one-act plays The Madness of Lady Bright and Home Free, his provocative, flawed full-length work The Gingham Dog, and, of course, Talley’s Folly.
Talley’s Folly is the story of an unlikely affair between two individuals who seem to have little in common beyond the fact that they are both outsiders. Matt Friedman, a forty-two-year-old-Jewish accountant, enters and talks directly to the audience. He introduces himself, gives a tour of the set, an old Victorian-styled boathouse on the Talley farm, verbally establishes mood and atmosphere, and sketches in the social and personal background of the play.
The boathouse setting provides the play with both its title and its atmosphere. “Talley’s Folly” is the name given the boathouse when Sally Talley’s Uncle Everett “Whistler” Talley first built it in 1870. The character of the old oddball Uncle remains in the background of the play as referent and model against whom the narrow, rigid, conformist, “successful” Talleys of the mid-1940’s are measured. The ornate boathouse “constructed of louvers, and lattice and geegaws” gives the play an otherworldly, sentimental, nineteenth centuryish feeling. This atmosphere is enhanced by sentimental music in the background coming from the Fourth of July celebrations in the park on the other side of the small lake. This music, Friedman says, sets the tone of the play: “this should be a waltz one-two-three, one-two-three a no-holds-barred romantic story.”
After Matt goes through his introductions twice (once quickly “for the latecomers”), Sally appears. She is irritated by Matt’s persistence, as well as by the behavior of her own family back on the hill (the subject of the last play, A Tale Told). Matt represents a possibility in her life that she had rejected—or thinks that she had rejected—yet her attraction to him is clear and the overall shape and direction of the play is evident from its first moments. Matt will gradually break down Sally’s resistance until she gives up, admits she loves him, and agrees to go off with him. In the process, we get to know and like these two individuals, and also, finally, to learn their secrets: why has this middle-aged Jewish man, apparently without any previous attachments, suddenly decided to woo aggressively a thirty-one-year-old Midwestern WASP spinster? Why has Sally Talley, a moderately attractive, socially prominent young woman, remained unmarried and almost ostracized by her family? And what exactly is her relationship to that family?...
(The entire section is 2150 words.)