Ted Sod: Why did you want to direct Talley's Folly?
Michael Wilson: Having produced Lanford's penultimate play, Book of Days, in its East Coast premiere as Artistic Director of Hartford Stage, I was very curious some 14 years later to explore his work as a director. When I re-read the play, I was struck by its pervasive humor, truthful simplicity, and (not always) quiet heartbreak. There was one moment, however, about half way through the play when I knew I had to direct the play: Matt is bearing down on Sally as to why she has never married at her age. Lanford writes: "A long pause. Sally tried to speak and can't." Finally, she manages: "There's time...enough...for...(Pause.)". Matt has hit his target, but at a cost. Suddenly, any sentimental associations I had ascribed to the play fell away. Here were two real middle aged people groping in the dark to see if the other might possibly be a light that would obliterate The Shadows of their painful past and offer a desperately needed hope for the future.
TS: What draws you to the work of Lanford Wilson?
MW: I was ten years old growing up in rural North Carolina, which is not that different in temperament than Lanford's rural Lebanon, Missouri, when ABC debuted a new series on Friday nights called Hot'l Baltimore. Each episode had a disclaimer cautioning the viewer of the show's mature themes. I vividly remember a character sauntering into the hotel lobby with only a chocolate chip in her navel, her private parts blacked out by network censors. Following The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, this was an utterly fantastic vision to me. It completely contrasted television's traditional and carefully constructed view of American life, as producer Norman Lear had done with other shows such as my all time favorite, All in the Family. Only this show was based on Lanford's hit play which had been running Off-Broadway for two years, and would continue to run for another year after the series was cancelled. I was fascinated both by the depth of Lanford's humanity, his sympathy for these derelict drifters of the Hotel Baltimore, but also impressed by the powerful reach of his storytelling.
TS: What are the challenges of directing a two-person play like Talley's Folly?
MW: There are a number of challenges, but I think the hardest thing is how to maintain a truthful, dramatic tension between the two characters throughout the play. Larger cast plays have the benefit of characters sweeping in from time to time, changing the life, the rhythm, the pulse of a play. Here, you have to mine the play's inherent dynamism, and give it visual variety and find its tonal shifts with only two players. It can be done - it must be done-but the work is very concentrated, and by nature, very specific to each second in the 97-minute play.
TS: What do you think the play is about? What do you think Wilson is saying to audiences about life in the Midwest circa 1944? How do you think his feelings about his home in Lebanon, Missouri inform this play?
MW: Talley's Folly is first and foremost a love story. Lanford has written that he wanted the play to be like one of those romantic films of the 1930s and early 1940s: "gentle and bright." But his genesis for writing Talley's Folly was in response to an actor's question she had about her character's history while rehearsing his Tony Award nominated political play of social unrest,Fifth of July. The late Helen Stenborg [mother of Roundabout Resident Director Doug Hughes] was playing Sally Talley in 1977, now 33 years older than the character is in Talley's Folly, and wanted to know what Matt had been like, what he looked like, sounded like. In answering her question, he was sketching the outline for what would become Talley's Folly.