Talley's Folly, written by Lanford Wilson and directed by Michael Wilson begins performances this week.
I'm sure that Lanford was more surprised than anyone when, in 1980, Talley's Folly became not only the biggest hit of his career but the play that would win him the Pulitzer Prize. There he was, a playwright known for popularizing the off-off-Broadway movement, hailed for his gritty tales of people on the margins of society, renowned for his collaborative ensemble work - and he was receiving his greatest acclaim for a two-character play that can only be defined as a romance.
In a way, it makes sense that writing Talley's Folly was actually never in Wilson's original plans; in fact he never set out to write what has become known today as his masterful "Talley Trilogy," the series of three plays telling the story of the Talley family of Lebanon, Missouri. It all began with Wilson's strong desire to write a play that reflected his feelings about American reactions to the end of the Vietnam War. He was frustrated to see that many people were so relieved to have the war over that they were inclined to sweep the entire experience under the rug and quickly move on. But while teaching a class on playwriting, Wilson met a man who had lost his legs in Vietnam, and it hit him that for so many veterans, moving on would be anything but simple. From this connection, Wilson began to write Fifth of July, a story set in 1977 of a paraplegic Vietnam veteran returned to his ancestral home as various family members battled over what to do with the house and their lives in the new America they found themselves living in.
That family would become the Talleys, and Wilson soon found himself unexpectedly placing them in a familiar location. As he has written, "The play would be one of restoration and commitment. Something the country sorely needed. I was almost surprised when I realized that the play had to be set in my hometown of Lebanon, Missouri. This had to be about the heartland." And while he was always known for his ability to write the cadences of authentic conversation, Wilson outdid himself by capturing the people and sounds of his own home in a way that was clearly something special.
Even as Fifth of July was meeting with success, there was still no trilogy planned. But then Helen Stenborg, the actress playing the old aunt Sally Talley in Fifth of July, askEd Wilson about Matt Friedman, the man her character reminisces about for much of that play. She wondered what he would have been like - and soon Wilson himself began wondering as well. He wrote, "That was the genesis of Talley's Folly. Imagining Matt and Sally on a date - this big, sexy, clumsy Jew coming from St. Louis down to Lebanon, Missouri, where nobody had ever seen a Jew before - was very exciting. I knew immediately that I wanted this to be unlike anything I had written."
Thus, Wilson began to write a play that both he and his characters would refer to as a "valentine." It would be set in 1944, his first venture into writing any period but his own, and he would endeavor to write the play as though it had been written in that time. Because it was such a departure for the playwright, he even chose to open the play with the character of Matt assuring the audience that this is going to be a love story, a romantic "waltz," as he puts it. When you look at Talley's Folly, it's truly hard to imagine that Wilson didn't begin with these characters of Matt and Sally as his centerpiece in the first place. They are rich, beautifully drawn people, still in some ways outsiders like so many of those he has written, and also created in a way that you cannot picture the Talley family without them.
And once he had Sally and Matt, Wilson had to keep going - there was so much left to be explored. So he stayed in 1944 and wrote the play Talley & Son, to take place simultaneously with the action in Talley's Folly, following the Talley family members up at the main house while the pair of tentative lovers was circling each other down at the boathouse. It's a gorgeously complete picturE. Wilson's achievement is not just to have these plays stand up as outstanding works on their own, but to have them become so much more when viewed side by side. It may have been an accidental trilogy, but it is one that will help to define the legacy of this brilliant playwright.
It's been more than 30 years since the original production of Talley's Folly first hit the stage. But with Lanford Wilson's passing in 2011, I'm so happy to be giving his masterpiece its first ever New York revival. It seems right that one of the first productions here since we lost Lanford should be of a play that was so close to home for him. I have great faith that with director Michael Wilson (no relation to Lanford, I should mention) and the wonderful pair of Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson, we will do right by this lovely valentine of a play.