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American Realism

Wilson's trilogy speaks to the myth of American promise.


Since long before Horatio Alger fibbed that our luck and pluck would make us all titans of industry, tales of Americans by Americans have peddled the myth of heroic agency. Through sheer will, we envision ourselves a nation of Madonnas, each of us starting with nothing but do-it-yourself greatness.

Me, I'd just like to have health insurance.

Two fundamental untruths power Alger's myth: first, that anyone born here can be whatever he or she dreams; second, that anyone achieving great success has done so by marshalling inherent greatness. Talk radio still buys it, as does a president who mistakes power born into for power earned. So do millions of the broke Americans willing to suffer under the assumption that someday they'll be on top.

The key question of Missouri-born playwright Lanford Wilson's remarkable Talley cycle is simple: How did this family — and, by extension we — come to be this way? The answer, of course, is complex. We're sediment. Instead of islands tugging ourselves from the sea, we're islands accumulating, made up of those bits of life, family, history and whatnot that collide and stick and somehow ball together into selves.

Wilson's trilogy appears in rotating repertory for the rest of the summer. It's American realism at its most bracing, and it's not to be missed. The plays trace the fortunes of one Missouri family from the optimism of World War II to the haunted ennui of Vietnam. The works are searching and poetic but not without whimsy, particularly in the moonlit Talley's Folly, a riverside romance between a small-town Missouri girl and a Jewish socialist of mysterious origin. Set in 1944 and well acted by David Fritts and Jessiee Datino, Folly concludes with love-struck idealism. Their hearts and minds wide open, these two set off to start a new world. Fifth of July, a hung-over triumph set 30 years later, shows us how that world crumbled.

The last of the plays, Talley & Son, is an accomplished piece, though the least of the series. Here, we live in the world fled by the young lovers of Talley's Folly. Set on the same night, Son is concerned with much to-do among the many Talleys absent from Folly. A parlor melodrama snares the family: Nobody but Aunt Lottie (Kathleen Warfel, too often speaking s-l-o-w-l-y, all a-quaver with meaning) notices that Sally is obviously about to elope with the Jew that her brother, Buddy (Brian Paulette), chased off with a shotgun earlier that afternoon.

So much distracts them that the play feels overstuffed. Anticipating a funeral that never happens, soldier Buddy is home on three days' leave. His father, Eldon (Mark Robbins), and grandfather Cal (Gary Holcombe) are in a patriarchal pissing match over matters both abstract and concrete. They fight over the changing nature of American entrepreneurship. In Eldon's mind, we've suffered a death of aspiration, with businessmen wanting to make money, not products. They worry the nuts-and-bolts future of the family business and, as the show wears on, they argue about Eldon's philandering, embodied here by a cleaning woman who keeps coming around the house. Buddy and Harley (Scott Cordes), a family friend trying to talk the Talleys into selling their garment factory to giant Delaware Industries, chase the Jew away. Eldon fights to keep word of his infidelities from his wife, Netta (Melinda McCrary). And over all of this hangs Timmy (the moving David Graham Jones), another soldier son, this one a ghost onstage almost every minute of the show.

With 12 characters bustling and heaps of back story to sort through, Talley & Son may be incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the other two plays. Even the actors seem uncertain at the busy and labored start. Paulette and McCrary, both excellent in Fifth of July, rely here on familiar tics. We're told that Paulette's soldier is a Jew-harrying son of a bitch who once tried to rape a neighbor girl. What he gives, us, though, is a somber Gomer Pyle, his hands flailing and his face screwed into an antic smirk. Next to Robbins and Holcombe, both grand as Midwestern men comfortable expressing no emotion but anger, his Buddy is just a punch line to a joke that hasn't been properly set up.

McCrary is one of Kansas City's best actors, but here, her bronze-dipped voice and formal locutions leave her sounding less like a woman scorned than a woman contracted to narrate the audio-book edition of some Harlequin romance.

Still, despite this strained start and some mannered staging from director Risa Branin, Talley & Son's accumulates into a strong but flawed play. A monologue from Jones' Timmy detailing what it's like to be shot is unforgettable, and the characters' moments of connection with the future and the past are as moving as they were in the first two plays.

These qualities elevate this uneven Talley & Son to something borderline essential. In life, our relationship with history is causal: a photo-album, a highway marker, the occasional story from grandpa. Here, over the three plays, we see it shaping us — our country, our region, our families. This is a God's-eye view of islands forming — or eroding.

Be on the lookout for Festival Days, August 26 and September 3, when you can see all three plays for $40.

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