I don't believe in ghosts, although I do see them occasionally. My 130-year-old house has been home to important politicians, working families, and people on the fringe. In the early 1900s, it was a meeting place for a multi-ethnic group intent on driving the Ku Klux Klan out of Memphis. In the '60s, the property became a low-rent boarding house, and my garden still yields a substantial crop of broken liquor bottles, old bullet casings, and marbles. In rare moments when I'm alone, it doesn't take more than an old song on the radio to send me to a place where time lines cross and all the lives my house has known happen at once.
That's what Lanford Wilson's early plays are like.
When Wilson died last year at age 73, he left behind an uncommonly humane body of work. He didn't write spook stories, per se, but The Hot l Baltimore at Playhouse on the Square and Talley's Folly, which closes this week at Theatre Memphis, are both plays that can make you believe that buildings might possess a kind of supernatural memory. Both are stories of love in the ruins and unfold like jazzy memories against backgrounds of crumbling architecture.
The boards of the decrepit Talley family boathouse are eggshell thin and can break at any time, sending the damaged lovers of Talley's Folly into dark water. The condemned Hotel Baltimore was a nice place to visit in some bygone era when every city in America was one of the greatest cities in America. Now it's a grubby hole, and its imminent demolition will wipe out the last physical traces of half the losers and lonely hearts who ever lived there.
Both plays are meaty showcases for character actors. In Baltimore, Tracie Hansom, Courtney Oliver, and Bussy Gower are unforgettable as an ad hoc family of hotel prostitutes. So too is Ron Gephart, who plays a cranky old hotel tenant descending rapidly into dementia. In Folly, Greg Alexander and Aliza Moran are especially fine as Matt Friedman and Sally Talley, who negotiate an affair as urgent and tenuous as any Cold War alliance.
Folly is the second play in Wilson's "Talley Trilogy," but it plays out like a companion to Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Matt is Wilson's relentless answer to both Tom Wingfield and the Gentleman Caller, and as such, he uses poetic language to set scenes and comment on circumstances that have drawn him away from the regularity of St. Louis into a somewhat experimental piece of dramatic fiction set in rural, racist Missouri during the height of WWII. "This play is a waltz," he says, gesturing to imaginary musicians who are just off-stage. What follows is a lyrical 97-minute love scene that romps across war-torn continents and into the heart of American labor disputes without ever leaving the brittle riverside dock nobody visits anymore.
Moran is superb as Sally, the unmarried nurse's aide who doesn't fit in with her conservative Protestant family. Matt won't give up his pursuit of Sally, but Alexander still somehow infuses his character with the quality Tennessee Williams once described as the "charm of the defeated."
As imagined by director Marler Stone, Talley's Folly is a perfect fit for Theatre Memphis' tiny Next Stage. There is no distance between the skeletal set and the audience, making the actors' full-bore performances that much more daring.
Dave Landis' The Hot l Baltimore isn't nearly as tight as it might be, and occasionally it's undermined by an obtrusive sound design so on-the-nose it smarts. Don McLean's "American Pie"? Was that really necessary?
Technical issues aside, when Landis' strong ensemble clicks, it's hard not to fall in love with the doomed hotel's nearly hopeless clientele.
Liz Sharpe and Tracie Hansom are fearless as a tough-as-nails survivor caught up in a bogus real estate scam and a brassy hooker prone to wardrobe malfunctions. But it's Gower, the freewheeling call girl with wanderlust and a head for geography, who steals every heart that's not nailed down. A guessing game in which Gower calls out cities where Paul Granger (played by Nick Lerew) might hail from and Granger ignoring her by disappearing into the song he's playing on guitar is a fantastic bit of not-quite musical theater built into the drama.
Irene Crist plays Millie, an elderly longtime resident who sees ghosts everywhere she looks. They attach themselves to places, she says. And so they do.
Talley's Folley, through October 7th
The Hot l Baltimore, through October 14th