‘Home is where the mother is,” writes playwright Lanford Wilson in his introductory remarks to his play “Rimers of Eldrich,” in his three-volume Collected Works. Thirteen of his plays are in the collection. Wilson has brought a number of places to life in the world of his plays, but none so vividly as the plays set in his home town of Lebanon, Missouri. Especially his trilogy called the Talley plays.
The second of this trilogy, “Talley’s Folly,” is playing through Sunday, November 2, at the McCarter Theater. The time of the play is 1944; the setting an old boathouse that is in serious disrepair. Two people meet there: Matt, a Jewish tax accountant and Sally, the 31-year-old (in that day, a spinster) daughter of the prestigious Talley family. The two had met the year before and now Matt has persuaded Sally to meet with him again. As Matt reminds the audience, “This is a waltz, remember. One two three, one two three.”
Wilson describes the play as a “valentine.” Directing the McCarter production is Marshall Mason, who directed the original production and has remained the most prominent interpreter of Wilson’s plays. Together with other like-minded artists they formed the Circle Repertory Company, which dominated the Off Broadway scene from 1969 until 1996.
Circle Rep had become Wilson’s New York home; the members of the company, his family. The plays he wrote during that time were often written with particular company actors in mind. The first of his Talley plays, “Fifth of July,” opened at Circle Rep in April, 1978. Set in 1977, we met the character Sally, now in her 60s and played by Wilson’s good friend, actress Helen Stenborg. In preparing her role, she asked Wilson what Matt had been like; this got him thinking. The image he conjured looked a lot like another company member, Judd Hirsch. (Hirsch would later become the familiar face of Alex in the hit TV series “Taxi.”)
When he started writing “Talley’s Folly,” set 33 years earlier, he remembered this impulse. He says that he thought to himself, “That is really interesting. I could challenge Judd to be serious for a change. I had always seen him do comedy.” At the time Hirsch was dating an actress in the company, Trish Hawkins. Wilson admits, “She was my favorite actress at that time. So it just fell into place. It was wonderful fun.” In Wilson’s introduction to the published text, he writes, “I imagined 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 — and it was very exciting. I knew immediately that I wanted this to be unlike anything I had written; it would be much lighter, with a gloriously happy ending. If this was going to be a love story, I wanted it to be like one of those romantic films of the 1930 and early ’40s, gentle and bright.”
Considering what he terms the “chaos” of our current world, he thinks that this revival may be just what we all need to see at this time. “The play is taking place during the end of a very different kind of war, a triumphant war. But it was a time also of idealism. Whether you wanted to be idealistic or not, it’s forced on you. I think people today will feel a certain nostalgia and reality.”
“Talley’s Folly” opened first Off Broadway at the Circle Repertory Theatre in Manhattan in May, 1979, and subsequently mounted on Broadway. New York Times critic Walter Kerr, on reviewing the Broadway opening, opined, “Will we love it in the middle of February as we did in early May? The prompt happy answer: You bet.” It played at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre through November, garnering numerous nominations for the season-end awards, capped with the distinction of winning that year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Before talking with Wilson on the phone, I took out our old atlas to see exactly where Lebanon, Missouri is — actually to see where Missouri is. (Out there somewhere.) Armed with this information, I asked Wilson if that still feels like home. Wilson replays his journey from Lebanon. He only lived there until he was five years old, when his parents moved to nearby Springfield, still in Ozark country. Soon after, his parents divorced, not a common practice in that day and time, and he lived with his mother. However, he did return each summer to Lebanon to stay with his grandmother. “It meant a great deal to me at the time. As I grow older, I remember more and more about that and less and less about anything else.”
His mother was a seamstress and had worked on army uniforms. “By the time I was in high school, they closed the garment factory and shipped the work to Chile.” He tells me that she was the model for the character of Viola, a washer woman for the Talley’s in “Talley and Sons,” the final part of the trilogy. But he makes it clear, “Although she wasn’t the mistress of one of the Talley’s. That was someone else. You grab pieces from here and pieces from there.” And so he has built a long list of indelible characters in his numerous plays.
He also called upon his mother as his “research assistant” when he was working on “Talley’s Folly.” “She said she thought she had earned a writing credit. I would call and ask what was the price on this or that and did you wear a uniform when you were a nurse’s aid. She did that during the war.” These were details that informed the character of Sally, also a nurse’s aide. Thinking back at all of the research that he did he remembers, “I knew the price of scrap metal on the day the play took place. I was so surprised that it didn’t get into the play.” Knowing that I am of the same “vintage” as he, he asks, “Do you remember flattening those cans? Darn it. There was no place for that in the play as it turned out.”
After high school, Wilson went to live with his father and his “new” family in California. Growing up, he had always thought of himself as an artist. “In school, I could draw and print the best. I was the best artist in my class.” He spent a year living with his father, where he attended San Diego State College and studied art history. He reports that his teachers there encouraged his artistic ambitions. “My dad, who had originally been a cobbler, was now working as an aircraft worker at Ryan Aeronautical, the folks that built the Spirit of Saint Louis. He got me a job there, and I stayed until I got my one year pin.” He would much later use this difficult time with his father as the basis for his most autobiographical play, “Lemon Sky.”
Then, he says, “I went home to Missouri.” From there he visited some friends in Chicago and stayed to work at an ad agency as a “paste up person — the lowest of the low.” During his lunch hours, he began writing stories as a way to make some money to support himself as an artist. “I wasn’t a very good artist as it turned out. I wasn’t all that damn good. But I did have a strong sense of design, which came in handy later as I could design the posters for the productions of my plays.”
The first of a number of “miracles” in his life has been widely written about, but bears repeating. One of the lunch-time stories that he was working on seemed more of a play than a short story. “I had been reading plays and had been in plays in high school. And I saw some plays in Chicago.” This is the miracle part: “I thought I’d try this idea as a play. By the time I was writing page two, I said, ‘I’m a playwright.’ This happened out of the blue; it came from nowhere. From then on, when I was asked what I did, I answered, ‘I write plays.’” He claims never to have painted anything since, though he has designed those posters. His friends teased him and said that he wrote plays so that he could do the posters.
McCarter audiences saw one of Wilson’s more recent works in January, 1992: his translation of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters,” for which he learned Russian.
Mel Gussow once noted in the New York Times that among Wilson’s 17 full-length plays and more than 30 one-act plays, he had created “a portrait of Americans asserting their individuality in a country that encourages conformity.” And added, “many of his characters are outsiders — prodigal spirits looking for a home.”
When I ask Wilson, “Where is your home?,” he answers, “Sag Harbor, Missouri — no Sag Harbor, Long Island.” He chuckles at his Freudian slip. “Well, when I found this house, I said, `This is what Ozark, Missouri should have been.’” He describes his home as an 1845 big old whaler captain’s house. “Simple. Before Victoria screwed everything up. Simple and strong. With lots of flowers in the back. This is home.” And Wilson delights in gardening.
He is in Princeton for rehearsals of “Talley’s Folly,” but says that no significant changes have been made to the text. When I ask him what he is working on now, he says, “You could have talked all day and not said that.” So I say, “Pretend I didn’t say that. Tell me about your garden.”
“No long sweeps of lawn and shrubbery. It’s a cottage garden filled with flowers.” And he’s also designing a tiny 50 by 40-foot garden for a “girl.” “Well, actually, she’s 85.”
Talley’s Folly, through Sunday, November 2, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Romantic comedy by Lanford Wilson stars Richard Schiff and Margot White. $15 to $55. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.