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Review: A Lovely Talley, With Kate Hamill and Jason O'Connell, Is No Folly for Syracuse Stage

Robert Hupp directs a sweet full-scale streaming production of this Lanford Wilson classic.

Kate Hamill and Jason O'Connell in Talley's Folly
(© Mike Davis)

From the dilapidated gazebo, to the brown wool suit, to the light of the moon, watching the new Syracuse Stage revival of Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly felt a little bit like Norma Desmond returning to Paramount. Seeing sets, costumes, lighting, and actors on a stage seemed so foreign and yet so familiar at the exact same time.

In an era where most companies are either not producing work or creating content filmed over Zoom, Syracuse Stage is going a more luxurious route, filming its entire new season live from its auditorium, with full design elements, a modest three-camera setup, and no audience. Talley's Folly feels like watching one of those great old PBS broadcasts, although a little shaggier here and there, particularly when it comes to sound quality. I was just so happy to watch two actors, Jason O'Connell and Kate Hamill, connect — and actually touch and kiss each other — that having to raise or lower the volume every few minutes didn't matter to me.

Wilson's 1980 Pulitzer winner follows one night in the life of Matt Friedman (O'Connell), a 42-year-old Jewish immigrant from Lithuania working as an accountant, and Sally Talley (Hamill), a Protestant nurse's aide from Missouri pushing old maid status at 31, as he convinces her to marry him. They met the previous summer, 1943, and he's written her every single day since, though she's not returned any sort of starry-eyed longing (the Talley clan isn't too happy about it either). At her family's boathouse — the architectural folly of the title — Matt and Sally confess their deep, dark secrets and hash out their fears and desires, the process of which could lead to these two lost souls actually falling in love.

Talley's Folly is a delicate play that needs a delicate hand — Wilson describes it as a "waltz" in his script — and Robert Hupp's production certainly does have that kind of romantic musicality. It's beautiful to look at, with a handsomely crumbling Southern Gothic set by Czerton Lim, recognizable period costumes by Suzanne Chesney, and the kind of lush, redolent lighting (by Dawn Chang) that signifies that love will happen here. It's just so nice to see a full stage again, after months of becoming accustomed to digital backgrounds and Brady Bunch squares.

O'Connell, whose last name probably signals a religious and cultural background far different than his character's, really captures the essence of Jewish warmth; his whole performance can be summed up in the Yiddish word "haimish," or homey. Hamill, also a playwright known for her rollicking stage adaptations of classics like Sense and Sensibility, is a tough nut for him to crack, but her icy surface eventually gives way to a vulnerable interior, striking an authentic balance between the two, which is very tricky to get right. It's hard not to root for Matt and Sally in general, but seeing a real-life married couple play these roles adds another layer of depth, understanding, and mutual respect.

Maybe it was the moonlight, but it's been eight months since I saw a play that truly looked and felt like a play, and this enchanting new streaming production from Syracuse Stage made it seem like no time had passed at all. You won't find it to be a folly, either.

Talley's Folly streams through November 22.