In Talley's Folly, which premiered last night at Lowell's Merrimack Repertory Theatre, true love isn't the destination. It's bubbling under the whole time -- it just needs a little coaxing to come to the surface.
For a while, it seems like Matt Friedman (Benim Foster), the babbling pursuer of the guarded Sally Talley (Kathleen Wise), will simply berate her into falling in love with him, a strong-arm storytelling tactic that often feels more sexist than natural in other fictional contexts.
But his aggressive plea, which later turns into somewhat of an interrogation, proves more fruitful and balanced than that, as Sally thankfully has something to tell.
Matt's confident, and none more so than in his abilities of speech. He starts the play off-stage, house lights still on, announcing to the audience everything from the play's runtime (97 minutes) to the setting (a broken-down gazebo, which is rendered like a majestic, dilapidated Hanging Gardens by the always-great MRT set department) to the habits of worker bees (they have a life expectancy of 20 days and nights).
Then he repeats most of the speech over again in triple-time, for everyone who showed up late.
Sally shows up to the gazebo looking lovely, despite being known around town as an old maid (she's 31; like Mary Hatch in It's a Wonderful Life, she probably was also cruelly condemned to a lifetime working at the library). Despite her constant frustration towards Matt's advances, she seems to be intrigued with him, or at least the version of him who courted her the year before.
Since then, her Protestant family has shunned him for his Jewish heritage, but Matt continued to write Sally daily letters, to which she gave him a single, un-encouraging reply. Still, he lures her down to the gazebo (or the titular "folly," as it's called) for one last shot.
Matt dominates much of the show, proving to be an entrancing, funny, neurotic main character tinged with layers of grief. But Wise's cryptic steadfastness is the key to the show. Sally's secret isn't a body in her closet or a criminal past or a library book that was never returned. It's a meaningful one that's both unexpected and ironic.
Most importantly, it's one worthy of being kept a secret, but also one that an audience should hear.
Talley's Folly runs through April 13. For information, visit mrt.org.
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