Lanford Wilson (1937-2011), who began writing one-act plays in his twenties for the Off-Off Broadway scene of the 1960s, didn’t write his first full-length play, Balm in Gilead, until the age of 28. He went on to create many more plays, with wildly successful works like The Rimers of Eldritch (1967), The Great Nebula in Orion (1971), The Hot l Baltimore (1973), and Burn This (1987), which enjoyed a great success in several houses in the Triangle before the turn of the century. He also made a superbly successful play out of a doomed dig on a river in middle America with The Mound Builders (1975). Wilson also brought to life a WWII Missouri family, the Talleys, with the plays The 5th of July (1978), Talley’s Folly (1981), A Tale Told (1981), and Talley & Son (1985). Talley’s Folly, currently on stage at Burning Coal Theatre Company, won Wilson the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Talley’s Folly is a two-person play set in 1944 and told in real time. The show runs a total of 98 minutes (we are told as much by one of the characters, no less than three times) without intermission. When the play opens, Matt Friedman (Jerome Davis) has just arrived at what is now a seemingly forgotten boathouse just a short walk from the back door of the Talley home outside Springfield, MO. The structure is that which is referred to as a “folly,” (a folly being any structure seemingly built for no reason, or with no good purpose), several of which were built by an ancestor of Sally Talley (Emily Rieder) all along the river, including the bandstand in the park just over the river from our location. This particular folly was built not as a boathouse but as a gazebo with a dock; it has not been used by the family in years and has fallen into disrepair. Our visitor, Matt, has returned here because he has come to propose marriage to a woman with whom he spent a long week during the summer last year and has been communicating with ever since. Unfortunately, it has been a one-sided communication; Sally admits that she answered him only one time. In that letter, she asked him to stop writing to her. Needless to say, he did not.

Now, Matt comes, hat more or less in hand, to ask Sally’s dad for her hand in marriage. But since Sally’s dad has passed away, Matt is trying to get a handle on just who it is he should ask. Sally’s live-in aunt, Charlotte, tells him that the best person to answer his question is Sally herself. He has been sent to the boathouse – or gazebo, rather – to await Sally’s return from the hospital, where she works as a nurse’s aide tending wounded soldiers sent home from battle. Matt speaks to us briefly before Sally arrives: He has been told Charlotte will send her down immediately. He tells us that, if he is to succeed in his quest, he will need all the magic of a Valentine, including the romantic setting and any and every other device he might call upon, for Sally’s answer to his question to be “yes.”

Sally arrives in a gingham dress that cannot possibly be what she wore to work, but because she is in such high dudgeon, this little fact is overlooked by us poor onlookers. It does not, however, escape Matt, who has filed the fact away for later use. Sally is the picture of vibrant country vivacity and “a Midwestern liberal-college graduate,” so Matt must wonder why she is still unmarried, now in her 31st year. Matt, as he later admits, is 45, which is yet another reason he will need all the help he can get to woo Sally.

Despite the aforementioned strikes against him, Matt knows that the main reason he is not a welcome suitor is his Jewish religion. Matt mentions this to Sally in their discussion. He realizes he is not the good Christian swain that would be welcomed by the family. He is, nonetheless, undeterred. He presses Sally for an answer; she simply wishes he would go away. But Matt is having none of it. If the answer were “no,” it would be very straightforward; the answer must be, then, “yes.” But why is Sally so afraid to say so?

The answer is slow to come. And I am not about to ruin the play by telling you about it here. Simply let me remind you that it is now 1944. The depression is still fresh in everyone’s mind, and the recovery in the Midwest has been very slow. Young women not yet married or in a “suitable profession” (nurse, teacher, or – better yet – professor, librarian, or administrator) by the time they have reached 30 are already assumed to be “old maids.” By her own admission, Sally is as eager to get “out of that house” as the residents are to have her gone. But there is one very strong and, in Sally’s mind, well-nigh insurmountable reason why she cannot marry Matt. And Matt, being Matt, is not about to let her get away without telling him what it is. At one point he even must physically restrain her from leaving him standing alone on the folly. But even though it makes her furious (she actually bites him), she allows herself to be stopped. This is a step in the right direction.

This production of Tally’s Folly was directed by UNC-Greensboro’s John Gulley, who is an associate professor and coordinator of the school’s MFA directing program. Gulley gives these two veteran actors leave to use their understated comedic skills. While the show is a mystery, it is, nonetheless, a comedy. But the real influence of the director here is the slow but sure unraveling of why Sally is being so circumspect. What could possibly be so terrible that it would keep her from accepting Matt’s proposal – something for which she would seem to wish? The answer is very real and very damaging for the time. And, as Aunt Charlotte so wisely pointed out, only Sally can tell us what it is.

This show drives home why it is that Lanford Wilson received a Pulitzer Prize for this work. It is subtle, funny, poignant, and very, very real. Davis and Rieder pull off their performances, seemingly, without a hitch. And, as Matt tells us, “right on time.”

Talley’s Folly continues through Sunday, February 9. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.