The one-act play, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980, is unusual in that it was written by Lanford Wilson, who is not Jewish, and it takes place in the 1940s in Lebanon, Mo., the playwright’s hometown, at a time when there were no Jews living there.
When the show debuted Off-Broadway in 1979, Judd Hirsch, who is Jewish, was the star; in the museum’s staging, the Jewish lead will be played by a non-Jewish actor.
The anomaly of non-Jews creating what might be considered a Jewish-themed drama underscores the material’s universal themes, said Catherine LaMoreaux, the show’s director and also artistic director of the Metuchen-based Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center, which is producing the play for the museum.
She cited a study guide prepared by Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, which argues that Wilson wasn’t being forthright when he described Talley’s Folly as “one simple romance.”
It is far more complex, LaMoreaux said, taking on the characters’ disparate backgrounds, as well as such issues as ethnic and cultural prejudice, the needs and goals of the individual, and what it feels like to be an outcast or misfit.
Thom Boyer, 34, of Somerville, the actor playing Matt Friedman, the Jewish character in the two-person cast, said, “I’m not Jewish, and it’s true that I don’t know what it means to keep kosher, or to have my holidays missing from government calendars, or to have large numbers of my family wiped out by genocide.
“But I can empathize with the plight of being an outsider. In interpreting that side of Matt’s character, I try to draw on those times in my life when my brain chemistry, or my sexual orientation, or my politics have placed me on the outskirts of society,” Boyer said.
Barry Pruce of East Brunswick, who is Jewish and a member of the Dragonfly board, and who has performed with the company using the stage name Barry Leonard, praised Boyer’s performance as “representing the confused spirit of a survivor who would forever be scarred but attempts to hide the pain through humor.”
“I love this play because it is very well written and well structured and is both funny and poignant,” said Anna Paone, 25, who will portray Sally Talley, a young woman who tries to conceal her vulnerability until Matt breaks through her defensiveness.
“Wilson’s script also has a lot to say about interfaith romance, tolerance, and cross-cultural understanding,” said Paone, who is LaMoreaux’s daughter and Dragonfly’s artistic associate.
Formed in the spring of 2014, the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center is the brainchild of the mother-daughter team.
“Anna recently graduated from college, and she was passionate about the idea of creating an artistic outlet for aspiring actors and directors in central New Jersey,” said LaMoreaux.
“In naming the theater, we chose Dragonfly because it had personal meaning to our family as well as our prospective audience,” she said. “The dragonfly was a family symbol for my nephew Cristoffer, a dynamic, intelligent, kind young man with a multicultural heritage, who died when he was 10 years old.”
At the same time, dragonflies are “beautiful, graceful, and are marked by iridescent rainbow colors,” which, LaMoreaux said, “illustrate the theater’s commitment to the celebration of diversity and multiculturalism.”