KPBS AIRDATE: AUGUST 19, 1998
It’s comforting to know, even in these most cynical of times, that, in theater, as in life, sometimes love can still triumph over adversity, and can even transcend death. Such is the case in two poignant, bittersweet love stories, where what’s right isn’t always what society thinks is right: in Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly” and Claudia Allen’s “Hannah Free.”
In the late 1970s, Lanford Wilson began a trio of plays set in his home turf of rural Missouri. All of the plays concern the Talley family, and the effects of historical events on ordinary people. “Talley’s Folly,” the second of the trilogy, written in 1980 but set in 1944, won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It’s a touching romantic dramedy about the still-unmarried Sally Talley, from an uptight, bigoted WASPy family, being aggressively courted by Matt Friedman, a middle-aged, Jewish, Eastern European immigrant accountant.
At first, Matt talks directly to the audience, introducing the memory play and its setting — a ramshackle boathouse on the Talley farm near Lebanon, Missouri. He promises to deliver the whole story in 97 minutes, and he comes in right on time. When Sally finally enters, she is apprehensive, resistant, and she rebuffs all of Matt’s humorous and amorous advances. Ultimately, both of their painful pasts begin to unfold, peeled away gradually, reluctantly, leaving the couple open and vulnerable and… well, you’ll have to see it to know how it all turns out.
The North Coast Repertory Theatre production is quite powerful. That design wizard, Marty Burnett, has really outdone himself this time. The magnificently decaying boathouse is surrounded by lush foliage blowing in a gentle breeze, a pond with lily pads, and the requisite summer fireflies. It’s enough to make you sweat. Just beautiful. Accomplished actor Howard Bickle makes his directing debut with wit and skill, and he helps to make this the best performance ever for Charlie Riendeau. He’s wonderful as Matt, funny but a little sad, clumsy but charming, a totally credible and irresistible guy. Heidi Wilson has a harder time with Sally, who she makes so brittle and angry, it’s hard to believe such an interesting man would find her appealing. No matter; the play is lovely, the production is touching, and it really shouldn’t be missed.
Same can be said of “Hannah Free.” It’s definitely a show to see — because it features a believable situation, engaging, three-dimensional characters and outstanding performances. This is an independent production mounted by former Diversionary Theatre artistic director Gayle Feldman in an impressive directorial collaboration with her life-partner, the talented Tijuana director Dora Arreola.
Here, too, center stage is dominated a fascinating character. Hannah is a wild-woman, an adventurer, a feisty septuagenarian, an assertive pilot with eternal wanderlust, now confined to a bed in a nursing home. Three doors down is her lifelong lover, Rachel, who’s been in a coma for a year. All Hannah wants is to take one last look at Rachel and then die. But Rachel’s religious, conservative and homophobic daughter forbids it, and so, therefore, do the ditsy, condescending employees of the facility — all, including a ridiculous singing minister, hilariously played by MSusan Peck. But everything changes with the appearance of Rachel’s adorably butch great-granddaughter, freshly portrayed by the gifted Sofia Sunseri.
As Hannah, Dixie King Wade is so energetic and audacious, so deliciously indomitable, that you want her to be your grandma, too. She’s an irrepressible force, perfectly complemented by the willowy but steely Sally Stockton, the steadfast homebody who, in this sweet and moving memory play, appears as a ghost in the present and in various incarnations of the past. At the end, anyone who’s a mother, a daughter, or a mate, anyone who believes in love, will find it hard to remain dry-eyed…. Who says there’s no romance in the theater any more?
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.