Talley’s Folly

The Talley Trilogy by Lanford Wilson


How many times have you reached the end of a great book or play or film and found yourself wishing that you could find out what happened to the characters next? The current trend in film is to take that emotional investment and parlay it into a sequel, often just a new iteration of the same events we saw the first time around. This premise has made billions of dollars for a variety of superhero franchises, simply swapping in a new villain each time around.

While these serialized stories have their own kind of entertainment value, there’s a different kind of richness that comes from a well-told tale that is both expansive and finite. It’s something that very few playwrights even attempt to do, but when the great ones get it right, a truly special theatrical experience is created.

Shakespeare’s history plays could be considered the progenitor of this idea, and in the modern day we’ve been graced with a very few great ones, including Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, Horton Foote’s Orphan’s Home Cycle, and, of course, Lanford Wilson’s trilogy of plays about the Talley family of Lebanon, Missouri.

Fifth of July
The last play chronologically, but the first play Lanford Wilson wrote in what would become his “Talley Trilogy.” This piece takes place on July 5th, 1977, thirty three years and one day after Talley’s Folly and Talley & Son . Kenneth Talley Jr., a paraplegic Vietnam War veteran, has moved back to his childhood home with his partner Jed. An impromptu reunion takes place over the course of the weekend. Ken’s sister, June, is visiting, along with her daughter Shirley and their Aunt Sally (the same Sally from Talley’s Folly). Ken and June’s childhood friends, John and Gwen, now country musicians, are also up for the weekend with their guitarist friend Weston. Gwen wants to buy the Talley home and turn it into her personal music studio, but Sally is not ready to give the house up. Family secrets are revealed, and the characters have to face up to past decisions that impact their future choices.

Talley’s Folly
This is the second piece in the "Talley Trilogy" and takes place simultaneously with Talley & Son. This is the only play in the trilogy where we step outside of the house and into a different area of the Talley farm. The ornate but dilapidated Victorian boat house is where Wilson places the unlikely love story of Matt Friedman and Sally Talley.

Talley & Son
This play takes place at the same time as Talley’s Folly on July 4th, 1944, but it was the last piece of the Talley Trilogy to be written. The play starts with a glimpse of Sally Talley running out of the house to find Matt Friedman after he has been run off by her brother, but much of the play revolves around Old Man Talley’s relationship with his eldest son, Buddy. Mr. Talley, despite his slow slide into dementia, refuses to give up ownership of his textile factory to his son and their business partner. Mr. Talley is determined to save the factory for youngest son Timmy to run when Timmy returns home from the war. The play is narrated by Timmy, who has been killed in the war, information that his family has not yet learned.

Talley's Folly plays at the Laura Pels Theatre through May 12. For more information and tickets, visit our website.

Related Categories:
2012-2013 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Talley's Folly

1 Comment

Interview with Set Designer: Jeff Cowie


Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Set Designer Jeff Cowie about his design process and perspective on the play.

Ted Sod: What do you look for in a director when you are meeting to discuss a play you are designing?

Jeff Cowie:  I've asked some directors to pull a magazine picture or to name an artist whose work they think embodies the spirit of the play. In the second meeting, I always bring pictures. The whole dynamic for the shows Michael Wilson, the director of Talley’s Folly, and I do together is different—we are partners and have lived and worked together for 20 years. When we’re walking down the street, one of us might say, "Hey, could the boathouse in Talley’s Folly have that kind of blah, blah, blah?" So, it's a little less formal. We had a meeting last week with all the designers at our apartment—and it’s a luxury to get everyone together so early in the design process. I believe that there's true collaboration going on, a lot of unspoken clues and hints and language. It’s hard to describe, but it's collaboration at its deepest and most exciting.

Set Design Model (Image courtesy: Jeff Cowie & Walter McBride/Broadway World)

TS: It seems that the boathouse, which is the setting for the play, is an additional character. Is that true from your point of view?

JC: I know that gets said a lot. I think the boathouse is the boathouse and it’s the place where Sally goes to be alone. It probably has been that place for her whole life. I think of it more as her very private haven. Also, a year before the play’s action, Matt and Sally made love there, so it has that very emotional history. For me it isn't really a character, it's a place.

Danny Burstein as Matt Friedman & Sarah Paulson as Sally Talley. Set design by Jeff Cowie. Photo by Joan Marcus

TS: What type of research did you have to do to design the set for Talley’s Folly?

JC: I researched a lot of Victoriana. The history of the boathouse is talked about in the play, so there’s a narrative about the place in the text. I'm trying to get across that wonderful smell of dampness and musty-moldy wood. The descriptive narrative also applies to the props. I think that since Matt finds a pair of ice skates in a trunk in the boathouse, it implies a whole world of what else is stored there. Finding ice skates can't be a stand-alone event. So, that leads me to think about Sally Talley’s family and what other things they’ve stored there. That’s one of the joys of designing, to try to dig into the history of the characters and the place to find reasons for what’s onstage.

... Read More →

Related Categories:
2012-2013 Season, Talley's Folly


About the Playwright, Lanford Wilson


Playwright, Lanford Wilson

His Life

Lanford Wilson was born on April 13, 1937 in Lebanon, Missouri. At age 11, after his parents divorced and mother remarried, Wilson moved with his mother to Ozark where he developed an appreciation for art and tried his hand at performing in high school plays.

He went on to study at Southwest Missouri State College for one term before moving to California to study art at San Diego State College and reunite with his father, who had relocated to the area after the divorce. While getting along wonderfully with his father’s new wife and his two half-brothers, Wilson’s relationship with his father was strained; his father refused to accept his son’s homosexuality (in 1970 Wilson would write Lemon Sky, a largely autobiographical account of this conflict between father and son).

Wilson spent only a year at San Diego State while simultaneously holding a factory job, riveting planes at Ryan Aircraft Plant, before he again became restless and decided to head to Chicago to visit friends. The visit began in 1957 and would last five years while Wilson worked as a graphic artist and took writing classes at the University of Chicago. It was only when he realized that one of his stories would be better suited to the stage that he shifted to writing dramatic work. As he grew increasingly interested in writing plays, Wilson felt there wasn’t enough of a theatre scene in Chicago to sustain his fledgling career, so he took off for New York City.

His Work

While supporting himself with odd jobs in New York, Wilson found a creative home in the Caffe Cino. This Greenwich Village coffeehouse, opened by retired dancer Joe Cino, had rapidly evolved from a place to grab a drink with friends into a theatrical venue where regular patrons were encouraged to explore and experiment with their art.

A performance at Caffe Cino. Photo by Ben Martin

Not only was Caffe Cino the catalyst for the off-off-Broadway movement, it was also one of the first safe havens for LGBT artists to perform and write about their experiences without being ostracized. In 1964, Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright about an aging drag queen became Cino’s most successful production, receiving more than 200 performances and considerable mainstream attention.

A poster for Lanford Wilson’s 1964 play “The Madness of Lady Bright.”
Ruby Washington/The New York Times

While producing work at Caffe Cino, Wilson met and would form a lifelong collaborative relationship with director Marshall Mason. He and Mason workshopped and eventually produced Wilson’s next critical success, Balm in Gilead at La Mama in January 1965. About the intersecting lives of prostitutes, drug dealers, and junkies in an Upper Broadway diner, Balm in Gilead was the first full-length off-off-Broadway production to be staged, as well as the first off-off-Broadway show to have its script published. While many shows occurring on and off-Broadway were commercial and mainstream, Wilson’s off-off-Broadway production chose to tell a riskier story.

Wilson continued to have work produced around the city, receiving a Drama Desk award for his off-Broadway production of The Rimers of Eldritch in 1967 and making his Broadway debut in 1968 with The Gingham Dog. In July 1969, after the tragic death of Joe Cino and subsequent closing of Caffee Cino, Wilson and Mason joined director Rob Thirkield and actress Tanya Berezin in founding the Circle Repertory Company. Circle Rep would produce a substantial amount of Wilson’s work, often directed by Mason, over the course of the following three decades. Among these productions were The Hot l Baltimore, an award-winning commercial success that transferred off-Broadway and spawned a short-lived television series; The Mound Builders, an ambitious piece that Wilson was deeply proud of; and the “Talley Trilogy:” Fifth of July, Talley’s Folly, and Talley & Son.

His Impact

For an emerging writer to make such a huge mark on a developing theatre movement and have his plays steadily staged on Broadway—within less than a decade of moving to the New York City—was unprecedented. British arts critic Michael Billington observed that Wilson often explored “the conflict between the traditional past and the insidious present, between surrogate families and a life of lonely isolation.” He leant an ear and gave a voice to characters living on the margins of society when very few other writers were willing to do so, and he did so without judging the people about whom he wrote. Wilson, an incredibly prolific and widely celebrated playwright, passed away on March 24, 2011 from complications of pneumonia at the age of 73. He left behind an impressive body of work and a lasting impact on the American theatre.

Wilson's play, Talley's Folly is playing through May 5 at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.

Related Categories:
2012-2013 Season, Talley's Folly

No Comments