Small can be beautiful in theater, as in so much of life.
Lanford Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley's Folly is small, involving only one 40-ish man, one 30-ish woman and some 90 minutes of interplay between them. Their personal chemistry, along with the external realms that that the play explores, are things of theatrical beauty. Perhaps appropriately, Berkeley's Aurora Theatre is staging the gem in its tiny second space, Harry's UpStage.
At its core, the story is intimate; around its fringes, it deftly scans the strife-filled milieu in which the pair live, in central Missouri during World War II.
Matt Friedman and Sally Talley (brilliantly played by Rolf Saxon and Lauren English) are private personalities, horribly traumatized by events they could not shape and fiercely determined to conceal their emotional scars from each other.
They also reflect vastly different backgrounds: Matt is Jewish, a refugee from Europe who escaped to the United States after atrocities took the lives of his family before the First World War. Sally is Christian, the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in the city of Lebanon. Most of her kin have only contempt for foreigners or Jews.
He is an outcast to the Talleys because of his otherness; she is a pariah to her family for reasons too painful for her to verbalize. They met a year earlier, became close, then went their separate ways, but Matt never let go. He wrote to her virtually every day.
On the Fourth of July, 1944, they meet once more, in a rickety Victorian boathouse -- a folly -- beside a river near the Talleys' hillside home. Matt has arrived with romantic hopes. Sally responds with rage.
At several points, he recounts a metaphoric linkage between people and eggs. In the words of an acquaintance, people "had to be careful not to bang up against each other too hard. Crack our shells, never be any use again." Matt doesn't buy the analogy. A shell must be cracked for its contents to have value, he insists. Before the 90 minutes end, his shell shatters and so does Sally's. And they create a relationship that seems certain to endure.
Wilson's storyline and exquisite dialogue leaven the dramatics with lively humor, mostly generated by Matt. For all his underlying seriousness, he can play the clown when it suits him, which is often. His wit is quick, usually sardonic and most often directed at Sally's loud and bigoted brother. We discover this quality even before the house lights go down, by way of a scene-setting monologue.
In contrast, Sally is rarely funny. She is independent, resilient and superficially tough, masking needs that she can't admit to herself, let alone to others. Having survived years of scorn from her own family, she knows how to camouflage her emotions. But English lets us know that there is more to the role than toughness; she delivers Sally's verbal rebuffs to Matt with force, but her body language and facial expressions reveal a gentler side.
Joy Carlin directed the wonderfully-shaded performances and Jon Tracy created the fine boathouse set, a latticed structure that's cluttered with appropriate junk. Where Tracy fell short, however, was in his lighting design, which fails to convey the mood of a romantic night illuminated by moonlight.
Talley's Folly is the first of three Talley family plays scheduled by Aurora as a tribute to Wilson, who died in 2011. It will be followed by The Fifth of July, which starts previews on April 17 in the company's main theater, and readings of the rarely staged Talley and Son on Mondays from April 27 through May 18.
Talley's Folly runs through June 7 in Harry's UpStage at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $35.