Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Jerome Davis: Talley’s Folly 

By | Published on Friday 7 October 2022

I’ve long been aware of the works of US playwright Lanford Wilson – in particular ‘The Rimers Of Eldritch’ and ‘Burn This’ – but I’ve rarely seen them actually performed.

So I was quite excited when I heard that Burning Coal – an acclaimed theatre company from Raleigh, North Carolina – were headed to London’s Cockpit Theatre with a production of one of his plays. ‘Talley’s Folly’ is a piece about love and separation, telling the story of the coming together of an unlikely couple, whilst also touching on other important themes. 

To find out more about the production I spoke to Jerome Davis, who is founder and Artistic Director of Burning Coal Theatre Company, and also stars in the show. 

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the narrative of ‘Talley’s Folly’? What story does it tell?
JD: In July 1943, Matt Friedman, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant to the United States, working as an accountant in Saint Louis, Missouri, decides, on a lark, to spend his vacation in the small ‘backwater’ of Lebanon, Missouri. There, to his astonishment, he meets the love of his life in one Sally Talley.

Their romance lasts through seven eventful ‘dates’ but then Matt goes back home to Saint Louis. In his bombastic way, he continues to write letters to Sally – daily – but cannot understand why her replies stop suddenly.

So, one year later, on the fourth of July 1944, as the Second World War is grinding toward its end, Matt returns to the dilapidated boathouse on the Talley estate in an attempt to understand what went wrong.

To do so, he knows he will have to unburden himself of the terrible tragedy that has haunted his life for 30 years. What he doesn’t know is that Sally may have a tragedy of her own, one that he will have to discover if they are ever to be united.

‘Talley’s Folly’ tells the story of two lonely and desperate people, convinced that their own limitations will keep anyone else from ever loving them, but who discover otherwise on the banks of the river in rural Lebanon, Missouri.

CM: What themes does the play explore? 
JD: The plight of refugees, antisemitism, the rural/urban divide, and the value of women in a society that scarcely recognised their worth.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the playwright? 
JD: Lanford Wilson was born in Lebanon, Missouri. He came to New York City in the late 1950s and by the mid-1960s had established himself as one of the preeminent playwrights of the burgeoning ‘off-off-Broadway’ scene, first at the legendary Caffe Cino and later as part of the critically important Circle Repertory Company.

His sequel to ‘Talley’s Folly’ – actually written before – played at Circle Rep and then on Broadway with Jeff Daniels, Swoozie Kurtz and Christopher Reeve. ‘Talley’s Folly’ starred Judd Hirsch and Trish Hawkins and won the Pulitzer Prize on its way to a lengthy Broadway run.

Its only London production was in 1983 at the Lyric Hammersmith, starring Jonathan Pryce and Haley Mills. 

Other Wilson classics include ‘The Gingham Dog’; ‘The Hot L Baltimore’; ‘Burn This’, which played on Broadway with Joan Allen and John Malkovich; ‘The Rimers of Eldritch’; and ‘Balm In Gilead’.

Wilson, who was gay, wrote largely about the people and places he had known as a youth, giving their characters dimension, humour, sometimes grace and always deeply human qualities that turn his plays from melodrama into something much more profound. 

CM: Can you tell us about the role you play in it? 
JD: Sure. Matt Friedman is – probably – from Lithuania. He’s not sure because his family was fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe when he was born.

He immigrated to the US when he was eleven and has grown up in and around Saint Louis, Missouri, where he now works as an accountant at a small accounting firm. He is a bit bold. Okay, more than a bit.

Aggressive, full of bad jokes – and even some good ones – a great mathematician and a charming loner who has long since given up on the dream of finding a companion. Until he meets Sally Talley.

CM: As well as appearing in the show, you are the Artistic Director of producing company Burning Coal. What made the company decide to revive the show at this particular time? 
JD: It is a play about hope. It is a play about people who figure out a way to make their own happiness despite enormous odds, world-wide forces who seem to be conspiring against their happiness at every turn.

Most of all it is a play about the things that bind people together, and how those things, ultimately, are far, far stronger than the superficial differences that seem to want to keep us separated into our own ‘groups’. 

It’s funny and fast and romantic and brutal and finds, I believe, an honest ‘happy ending’, one that is deserved. It’s also one of the best written plays that America has ever produced, I think.

There’s not a word or a syllable out of place and when the puzzle clicks together, if we do it right, it will create a kind of catharsis that I think is much needed in the world today.

CM: So the key theme of the play is still very relevant to contemporary audiences? 
JD: Definitely, I honestly can’t think of a more relevant theme. Polls have shown, for instance, that thirty years ago in the US, men could identify six ‘good friends’ in their life. Today, that same poll shows the number to be zero.

People are lonely, more desperate, more distrustful of each other, and less confident in their own worth. This is the play for today.

The surface issues that might seem to make it otherwise are superficial and in fact make clear exactly what the playwright was getting at. That those things have less worth if there is something more underneath.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your director and the rest of your cast?  
JD: Sure. I met director John Gulley in 1992, I think, when he cast me in a production of Horton Foote’s ‘The Trip To Bountiful’ starring Ellen Burstyn. I was living in Manhattan at the time.

A few years later I moved to North Carolina, unaware that John taught at the University Of North Carolina at Greensboro. When I realised we were now about an hour apart, I started agitating for him to come and direct for Burning Coal.

Our first project together was David Hare’s ‘Skylight’. I played Tom in that production and an actress who John had taught years before at UNCG, Emily Rieder, played opposite me. It was a heavenly experience; I think for all of us. 

I should take a moment here to say: I do not act very often with Burning Coal. ‘Skylight’ was only the second role I had given myself and ‘Talley’s Folly’ is the third. I did not found the company to give myself acting work, but there was no way I was giving those roles up!

So, when we decided to do ‘Talley’s Folly’ in January 2020, I got John on board as director and Emily on board as Sally. I knew I wanted to take it to London, but COVID got in the way, and then Emily gave birth to the second of her two children and was not able to continue in London, so we had to recast Sally.

I knew exactly who I wanted, and Kelly Pekar was available, so we brought her in, rehearsed for a month in Raleigh and will fly into London on 8 Oct for what will be a co-production with our great friends at The Cockpit.

CM: Can you tell us about Burning Coal and your involvement in the company? What are its aims and ethos? And why is it called ‘Burning Coal’?
JD: My wife, Simmie Kastner, and I founded Burning Coal in 1995. We moved from NYC to Raleigh in 1996 and did our first production here in May 1997 – Ron Hutchinson’s ‘Rat In The Skull’.

We have just begun our 26th season in Raleigh, so we’re doing pretty well. Our mission is to produce “literate, visceral, affecting theatre that is experienced, not simply seen, using artists living in or working out of Raleigh, North Carolina to create work that has a global perspective”. 

Simmie and I tossed around dozens of potential names for our company, but were never happy with anything, until one day she pointed at the dogeared Bible sitting on my bedside table and said “you are always reading that thing? Isn’t there something in there?”

The next chapter I was destined to read was Romans 12, which includes this beautiful idea: “If your enemy is thirsty, given him drink. If he is hungry, feed him. To do so will be like bringing burning coals down upon his head”.

That felt right to both of us. Effecting change through positive rather than negative works. It also had a gritty and urban feel that we both liked. It has served us well, as has our mission statement, over the years. It has kept us on track.

CM: Can you tell us about yourself now? How did you come to be working in this industry? How did your career begin? 
JD: Bruce Springsteen was once asked by a reporter at the end of one of his legendary and lengthy shows: “Why do you play so long, so hard?” Bruce laughed and replied “Desperation!”

I think that may be the most honest answer an artist has ever given to that question, so I will steal it and use it here!

I’m from a relatively poor family, I grew up in rural middle Tennessee, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville… but there was a major university there – Middle Tennessee State – and so I was bumping elbows with people from quite a wide background and quite a wide set of beliefs, many of them diametrically opposed.

And yes, the commonalities that bound them together, mostly their economic conditions, bound them together more tightly than one might expect. 

Then, I got lucky. I had a great high school drama teacher. I walked into her auditorium one day in my sophomore year and, in a very real sense, never walked out again. This was home, and I knew it. I’ve never wanted to be anywhere else than in a theatre.

My twin brother fell under her spell too, and is now a high school drama teacher in a rural town twenty miles away from there, doing great things with kids who might otherwise have never come anywhere near a theatre, and my younger brother teaches drama at a university just a few hours away. 

I moved to NYC after college – I was the first in my family to graduate college in the 20th century – and began working, first on Wall Street and then for a tax attorney on Long Island.

I was able to make a living while I worked as an actor in NYC and around the country in regional theatres, and later began directing.

I knew ultimately that I wanted to run a theatre, and when I met Simmie, I knew I had found a ‘partner in crime’. She had a background in theatre but was now working at Oracle, doing big things. Her support has been critical to the company’s success.

She is a great business mind and has helped us in innumerable ways as the company’s part-time ‘Managing Director’. We were and still are a ‘mom and pop’ organisation in a very real sense.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far? 
JD: As an actor, I was hired by Richard Jenkins during his first year as Artistic Director of Trinity Rep in Providence.

There I got to work with people like their founder Adrian Hall; Richard himself, a two-time Oscar nominee; David Wheeler; Ralph Waite; Eugene Lee, who was scenery designer on the original production of ‘Sweeny Todd’; and many other great artists; and I got to see how a close-knit company works. 

At Burning Coal, I have had the great honour of working with the great David Edgar on a number of occasions. In fact, he has travelled to Raleigh seven times to work with us on his plays.

That included the first ever production of all three of what we called ‘The Iron Curtain Trilogy’  – ‘The Shape Of The Table’, ‘Pentecost’ and ‘The Prisoner’s Dilemma’ –  which we did in Raleigh in 2014 and then took to London, also The Cockpit, garnering six four-star reviews, including one from Michael Billington in the Guardian.

CM: What hopes and ambitions do you have for the future?
JD: I would like to see Burning Coal continue beyond my working life. There are a lot of steps in that process that need to be completed, including securing a new long-term lease on our space, generating more funding streams and putting together the strongest board possible so that when the time comes for me to turn the reins over to another, we’ll be giving them a solid foundation upon which to build.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
JD: Right now, in Raleigh, we are running a new play that we commissioned from British playwright Tatty Hennessy called ‘A Great Big Woolly Mammoth Thawing From The Ice’. After that we will open Lauren Gunderson’s ‘Silent Sky’, a show we had scheduled for April 2020 before our nemesis, COVID, hit.

Burning Coal’s production of ‘Talley’s Folly’ is on at The Cockpit from 13-29 Oct. See the venue website here for details, and to book tickets.

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