Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Romantic Outdoor Intimacy

By Russ Bickerstaff
summer stage
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Emotional intimacy can be very difficult to maintain in an outdoor theatre. The dramatic immediacy can fizzle in the open air. Summerstage manages a respectable kind of intimacy with its emotionally entrancing production of Talley’s Folly, which opened this past weekend. Phil Stepanski and Ruth Arnell star in a two-person romantic drama about a couple of people meeting at an old boathouse in Missouri in 1944.

Stepanski is plays Matt Friedman, a man living in St. Louis who has fallen for a girl named Sally Talley. At the beginning of the drama she doesn’t seem even remotely interested in having him visit. He is resolute in his romantic desires. So he’s the hero here. We identify with him because of his fearlessness, but we admire him because of his charm as well. Given the character’s complex European ethnic background, Stepanski is saddled with trying to render an accent that give any dialect coach a headache, but Stepanski is charming enough to make a vaguely mish-mashed accent feel perfectly natural. Everything in that works in Stepanski’s performance stems from his ability to draw genuine sympathy from an audience in character.

Opening weekend has found Arnell’s voice compromised by illness. It adds some depth to an already very nuanced performance. She’s playing someone who works as a nurse’s aid. She’s working all the crazy hours a person in health care could be expected to work. It’s understandable she would have come down with a head cold and would invariably be in kind of an irritable mood confronting this man he seems so attracted to her. She just wants to relax and doesn’t want to be bothered with this guy who has been writing her letters constantly for quite some time. The compromised voice adds a kind of vulnerability to the characterization.

It’s a very delicate dynamic between these two characters. Stepanski does a really good job of making an audience like the man he’s playing. If the woman he feels such charming affection for comes across as being to heartless towards him at the beginning of the play, she seems kind of sinister.  Thankfully, Arnell brings an exhausted compassion to the role that keeps her end of the performance remarkably appealing.

Lanford Wilson’s romantic drama has a refreshingly informal feel about it that is quite at home in an outdoor production. Audiences get to hang out with a couple of people who will, over the course of 90 minutes or so, get to know each other a little bit better. As an audience, we are also taking a 90 minute vacation into 1944 and casually spending time with a couple of people who have lived lives that are very much a product of their era. It’s a heartfelt look at life and love a few steps before the middle of last century.

Summerstage’s production of Talley’s Folly runs through Aug. 9 at Lapham Peak State Park. For more information, visit Summerstage online.
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