- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

Now that it finally feels like summer, the last thing on your mind is a valentine. Yet that’s precisely what Theater J’s sublime production of Lanford Wilson’s play “Talley’s Folly” is: a plump, thumping, heart-shaped declaration of love.

Everything fits together so beautifully in this show it feels like destiny.

Daniel Conaway’s fresh take on the set wins you over from the minute you walk beneath a flower-covered trellis into the theater. The setting looks like a watercolor you would buy at a seaside shop, with the fanciful gingerbread boathouse (the “folly” referred to in the title) and riverside dock rendered in sea shades that appear superbly weathered by the sun and water.

A small boat bobs in the water in front of the stage, and coupled with the gear you normally associate with a pier — canoes, lanterns, rusting fishing gear and old pots of sun-bleached flowers — the overall effect is gently romantic.

It doesn’t hurt that it is summer in Missouri in the 1940s, with World War II drawing to a close. A band concert in a pavilion across the lake is about to begin, and the air is languorous with the scent of honeysuckle and the drone of bees.

What an idyllic place for a romance, or more specifically, a proposal. In 97 minutes, if all goes right, says Matt Friedman (Rich Foucheaux) in the play’s preamble, that is what we’re going to see.

Matt, a tightly coiled, 40ish Jewish accountant from St. Louis, has traveled to this southern Missouri Eden to ask the tarnished Southern belle Sally Talley (Colleen Delany), a shiksa from a wealthy family, no less, to marry him.

At first, the hard-shelled Sally is impervious to the surroundings and determined to defy Matt’s intentions, but there are hints of softness beneath her stern-chinned resolve. She is wearing a brand-new dress, and red lipstick softens the set of her lips.

Each time she declares “I’m leaving,” something draws her back into the fray. The grandly territorial, finagling Matt sees this as a showdown, and he is not leaving until they have hashed out their feelings for good.

Hash they do, dipping and swooping like shadowboxers as they initially duck their feelings and then slowly, inexorably, strip off the layers and illusions to reveal their true, disappointed selves.

Matt and Sally are damaged goods. The wonder of Mr. Lanford’s delicate play is that these two headstrong, wronged people are worthy of love and of making a new life together. This is not the goggle-eyed love of youth. Instead, it is a mature, yet impetuous and willful love between a man who never thought he would marry and an intelligent woman of fine feeling trapped in her second-class status as the family spinster.

In the beginning, Matt tells the audience that the play they are about to see “is a waltz … One, two, three, One, two, three.” That is how Mr. Foucheaux and Miss Delany, under the tender direction of Peg Dentilhorne, play it: like a dance, moments of genteel motion that burst into a frenzy of emotion.

Back and forth, back and forth, Matt conducts his impassioned courtship of Sally. Mr. Foucheaux, so nimble in last season’s “Twelfth Night” at the Folger, reveals an endearing, bearlike grace as Matt. He is such a klutz, a self-described dud at romance, yet there is something marvelously romantic about his sputtering and bumbling.

In contrast, Miss Delany imbues Sally with an admirable sense of capability. Though she has her fidgety moments, Miss Delany’s Sally is an oasis of calm. You can easily see why Matt cannot help but swim toward her.

Together, they are like Astaire and Rogers. She gives him class, he gives her sex. Their private, peculiar dance is what makes “Talley’s Folly” such a lovely valentine, a glimpse of hearts and flowers in the midst of summer.

***1/2

WHAT: “Talley’s Folly” by Lanford Wilson

WHERE: Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Through July 20.

TICKETS: $21 to $34

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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