If anyone needed a reminder of just how much talent walks Washington’s stages, last weekend’s slate of openings offered a damn good one. I took Friday night off, in fact, and still saw at least six performances that would measure up in any market on the planet: At the Signature Theatre, in a show called Donna Q., Washington theatrical institution Nancy Robinette is offering a master class in timing, physical characterization, and the playability of subtext; Woolly Mammoth’s Patience showcases not just the larkish physical comedy of Marty Lodge and the singularly apoplectic Angry White Guy of Mitchell Hébert, but also the enviable versatility of Naomi Jacobson, who’s as fluent in the pained uncertainties of Jason Sherman’s very modern drama as she was in the comic verities of Ben Jonson’s The Silent Woman at the Shakespeare Theatre earlier this season and the lyric mysticism of Yehuda Hyman’s The Mad Dancers last month.
And in Theater J’s quietly lovely production of Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, the gifted up-and-comer Colleen Delany makes a beautiful, fragile foil for the latest in a series of increasingly rich performances from Rick Foucheux, an actor who’s ranged in the last few seasons from Mamet’s Edmond to Shakespeare’s Malvolio, Chekov’s Gaev, and that memorably vile cop in the U.S. premiere of George F. Walker’s Heavenand who’s gone, in the process, from very good to positively great.
Folly’s Matt Friedman is, in his way, a character as complex as any of the others Foucheux has conquered recently: A progressive-minded immigrant Jew at large in the uneasy, anti-union South during the closing years of World War II, he’s fallen hard for a daughter of the local gentry, and he’s determined to overcome both his own deep-seated doubts about coupling up and the perplexing resistance of the clearly smitten lady in question. He’s an orderly intellect getting about in a hopelessly disorderly carcass, a jokester whose mordant humor draws on what might very well be a bottomless well of despair, a worldly, no-illusions guy thoroughly drunk on the romance of moonlight and hope and his girl. Foucheux pulls all these threads together into a funny, touching, vulnerable performance without dropping a single stitch; his Matt is both generous and guarded, impatient and understanding, with a self-conscious physicality (watch the way he fidgets with a hat, the way he steps gingerly into a rowboat) that suggests a host of uncertainties hidden behind that cynical, witty front. The actor’s ear for accent is acute, his command of Wilson’s gorgeous language casually absolute.
And oh, that language. Talley’s Folly contemplates matters of politics and of the heart, of war and of remembrance, of bigotry and of the rare-enough grace it takes to transcend a childhood steeped in it, and Wilson describes each of these territories with a cartographer’s precision and a poet’s gift. “I didn’t know you had a sister,” Delany’s Sally observes as Matt tries to explain a central sequence of events in his pre-America past. “It turned out to be of little consequence,” he replies, “people in Europe being very wasteful of people.” In this second of the three Talley chronicles, the playwright manages to interweave a fondly skeptical appraisal of the story’s localethe Missouri of his own boyhood, to which Daniel Conway’s magnificent ruin of a gingerbread-boathouse set does detailed homageand a humane, regretful assessment of the world beyond its parochial confines. The sum of his judgments is at once heartbreaking and stubbornly full
Director Peg Denithorne, who cut her teeth at Wilson’s old theatrical home (New York’s now-defunct Circle Rep), hasn’t quite managed to keep the drama’s climax from seeming a trifle anti-, but that probably has more to do with the nature of the secret that’s been keeping Sally from giving in to her feelings for Matt. Although it would have been shattering in the ’40s, Sally’s “shame” surely wouldn’t be quite so paralyzing nowadays, and despite Delany’s affecting performance, audiences will have to stretch to believe that it’s been governing the character’s choices so completely.
Otherwise, Denithorne seems to understand the play’s rhythms intimately, and she gives the various ups and downs of Matt’s last-chance wooing plenty of room to breathe; the evening clocks in at a bit more than the 97 minutes indicated in his opening speecha kind of invocation to the audience that wryly celebrates not only the rituals of courtship, but those of theaterand yet it doesn’t feel an instant too long. And once the confessions are made and the deal is closed, she lets Matt and Sally seal it with an unscripted kissthe perfect gesture of connection for two damaged loners who’ve each found the only possible match.
Paulette Laufer’s fanciful Donna Q. pairs its characters off, too, and more cheerfully, but it’s ultimately a lot less winningnot least because its language too often strains in an obvious effort to sing.
Laufer, a local playwright who’s had more than one show developed at the Signature Theatre, made this one-woman play for Nancy Robinette, and the loopy but lovable title character is clearly meant as a kind of incarnation of the actress’s warmly whimsical comic style; Donna Q. speaks in non sequiturs, makes unlikely cognitive leaps and then acts even more improbably upon them, and somehow manages to change a lot of lives, including her own, for the better. The plot, you see, is based (very loosely) on Don Quixote, though the windmills Donna Q. is tilting at never seem all that intimidating.
There are a lot of them, to be sure: Donna, who’s training for the annual Polar Bear Plunge that draws hordes of New Year’s Day swimmers to the icebound shores of Lake Michigan, is distracted during the pursuit of this not-all-that-impossible dream by the loss of her job, the demands of an excitable wedding-planning niece who’s turned into “a bride-beast,” the need to boost sausage sales at her tradition-minded brother’s deli, and the romantic aspirations of a stuttering delivery guy. “Somehow I need to see to it that all hearts are joined,” Donna observes at one point, and of course she does; her successes seem at once foreordained and inconsequential, and as it hops from one small victory to another, the play winds up feeling as if it had a bad case of attention-deficit disorder.
Jose Carrasquillo’s production has substantial charms: Tony Cisek’s set is a long ribbon of ice that arcs up and away from the audience, a cold road chasing a vanishing point somewhere beyond the horizon upon which Dan Covey keeps painting such lulling patterns in blue and green light (except when Donna Q.’s travels take her to Barcelona and into the arms of a gallant swain; everything goes all sultry then, all hot reds and warm yellows). And despite a few overliteral moments, Debbie Wicks LaPuma’s sound scheme offers crucial punctuation for the constantly shifting narrative.
And if it doesn’t quite add up to anything transporting, the play does offer Robinette quite a vehicle. She creates vivid, recognizable physical characterizations for each of Laufer’s personalities, slipping easily from one into another until you know who’s going to speak next even before she opens her mouth. When she does speak, which is pretty much nonstop for 85 minutes or so, it’s with a fluidity that makes a daunting script seem effortless.
And when she laughswell, that’s when Donna Q. sparkles. No one laughs the way Nancy Robinette does; I can’t imagine anyone smuggling more calculation into a chuckle, freighting a giggle with more self-satisfaction, packing more suspicion between the syllables of a chortle. One of this actress’s many strengths is the vast vocabulary of her amusement, and in this production, at least, it proves as eloquent as any of the words she’s been given. CP