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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Aug. 29, 2014

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Drew Brhel stars in Third Avenue Playhouse's production of "Talley's Folly."
Drew Brhel stars in Third Avenue Playhouse's production of "Talley's Folly." (Photo: Anya Kopischke)

"Talley's Folly" provides a moving opening for Third Avenue Playhouse

We all have secrets that are held close in dark places, kept from stretching into the light of day for fear that only trouble will come our way. But sometimes, and it’s hard for us to know when, shining light on a secret blazes a new path and opens a door that may well have been nailed shut for a long, long time.

That is the heart of "Talley’s Folly," the Pulitzer Prize-winning romantic comedy by Lanford Wilson that opened the season at Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay, yet another wonderful theatrical option available in Door County.

Drew Brhel, a familiar face to Milwaukee audiences, plays Matt Friedman, a 42-year-old Jewish accountant from St. Louis who is trying to learn how to dance with the 31-year-old Sally Talley, played by Amy Ensign. The two had a brief time together a year ago, and after much anguish and fear, Matt has returned to Sally with a hope in his heart that is virtually overwhelmed by insecurities.

Matt’s sonata takes place under the moonlight in a broken down boathouse on the grounds of Sally’s home. She lives with her parents, unhappy and unfulfilled and afraid of the world around her. She has a brave – perhaps even brazen – front, but it’s simple to see the unease in her soul.

For Matt, this is lay it all on the line time. His life has been an empty shell, tortured by memories of an immigrant childhood and a loneliness only reinforced by his job as a business accountant. His pursuit of Sally is determined and overzealous, and he knows that nothing he does will win the day – or the girl.

The year is 1944, and the world around them is changing rapidly. The folly of Sally is the boathouse where Matt has returned, and she is determined to send him packing. The early part of the play is him saying "please" and she saying "please go."

The barrier between the two begins to crumble in a tender scene when Matt discovers ice skates, puts them on and stands on the porch of the boathouse, holding on to a post for balance. Sally takes his arm and shows him how to lift one foot, and then the other. It’s surprising how much warmth there is between them and serves to remind the audience that these two once had something special.

Brhel wraps his performance in rapid-fire cadence designed to keep his plea moving forward and designed to not allow Sally to stop him, once and for all.

Brhel is an absolute powerhouse on stage, and he could easily overwhelm this play. But Ensign gives as good as she gets, and she is a remarkable study in a woman who thinks she is strong and who wants to be strong, but is still consumed by her secret.

I won’t divulge the secret, hoping that you go to see the play, but it comes in a high-powered dramatic moment that sent shivers down the spine of the opening night audience.

Robert Boles directed the play with an artist's touch for the power of immaculate pacing. This is a play that flows like a gentle stream on a gossamer night of stars and music.

I’ve seen this play at least half a dozen times, and often I’ve seen set designers go over the top on the dilapidated boathouse. Designer James Valcq resists the temptation to gunk things up and keeps the set as simple as the play.

It’s a wonderful opening to the season for Third Avenue Playhouse that should be on the calendar of everybody who visits Door County and loves live theater.

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