You Should Know Jack

Stageworks' latest is a good chance to catch a rising star

There's only a handful of top actors in the Tampa Bay area, and just about everyone in the theater here knows who they are. There's Brian Shea, of course, and Ned Averill-Snell and "ranney," and there's Susan Alexander and Colleen McDonnell and Julie Rowe and maybe six or seven others. We have to be grateful that they choose to remain in Tampa or St. Pete, since the opportunities here are relatively few, and we have to be glad every time they're hired to show their stuff — the spectacle of fine performing is a gift to fortunate theatergoers. Still, with the number of local theater companies growing — think of Gypsy, Hat Trick, Fresh! Live! Theatre! and Salerno, among the newer troupes — there's definitely room for a few more top thespians. It may be difficult to keep them in town — Linda Slade, for example, has recently moved to Los Angeles — but while they're here, stage companies and audiences vividly feel the difference. When these actors are on stage, local theater is as good as theater anywhere.

Well, a notably talented performer is now turning up more and more on local stages, and I don't think it's too soon to say that he's one of our best. His name is Jack Holloway, and he's currently appearing in Stageworks' Talley's Folly, at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. I first noticed Holloway in Bayshore Productions' lamentable Lone Star at the ¡Viva La Frida! Café y Galeria, and though the comedy wasn't much, the actor, playing a slow-witted good ol' boy, stood out. Then I saw him a few months ago in Stageworks' All My Sons, when he had the small part of George Deever, an unpredictable hothead out to stop his beloved sister from marrying into the troubled Keller family. As George, Holloway was riveting: an angry accuser at one moment, a love-starved puppy at the next, he oscillated perilously, worryingly, persuasively. And now he's Matt Friedman, a good-humored Jewish accountant devoted, in the year 1944, to romancing overcautious, Gentile Sally Talley just yards away from the house wherein lives her anti-Semitic brood.

This is a starring role, and Holloway is every bit up to its demands. His Matt Friedman is courtly and self-deprecating, but stubbornly committed to winning Sally's hand in marriage. He's also a man with a secret: he witnessed the torture and murder of close family members overseas, and has pledged never to bring a child into such a vicious world. His mission, in the hundred or so minutes of the play, is to wrest Sally away from her bigoted family, to convince her that their marriage won't prove a fiasco, and to win her to his deeply-held promise to remain childless. And Holloway carries it off: he's gracious and obstinate, convinced that Sally wants him in spite of her protestations, and mostly amused that the Talleys find him "more dangerous than Roosevelt." True, Holloway doesn't look very Jewish. But with a beard and glasses, he manages to convince us to suspend our disbelief, and his Yiddish accent finally seems as natural as his kind face. If the play eventually begins to lose our attention — a hundred minutes turns out to be too many for this particular plot — it's clear that the fault never lies with the actor. Holloway's the real thing, an artist whose performance can stand up to the closest scrutiny, and who thrives on a demanding, complicated challenge. If the Bay area can hold on to him, we have another major talent here.

Which is not to deprecate Jonelle Meyer as Sally Talley. Meyer's a fine actress who lends integrity to the part of a high-strung nurse's aide who was once — but is no longer — the belle of the ball. Still, even with her strengths, Meyer leaves us with some questions. It's never clear, for example, that she truly desires Matt - when she demands he get off the property, she seems, in fact, to want him off the property. Further, Meyer never shows us what qualities have won Matt's devotion: with her nervous dismissiveness and utterly repressed sexuality, she's hardly a siren calling smitten sailors onto the reef. If consistency were all we asked of a performance, Meyer's portrayal would be satisfying: this is one of those cases where you can't tell the actress from the character. But Talley's Folly is a love story, and we've got to believe that these two figures want each other. As it is, we only really believe in Matt's feelings; Sally's remain a rumor, implied but never substantiated.

Shouldn't Anna Brennen's direction have addressed this defect? Probably — and still, you can't help but admire the emotional intelligence with which she's orchestrated most of this duet (Matt calls it "a waltz"). The script gives her some problems, though: for example, no matter how often either character threatens to leave the stage, you just know that, in a two-character play, it's not going to happen. And then Matt has a few moments of physical slapstick that add nothing to the production, and seem a plea for inessential laughs. There's nothing at all wrong with R. T. Williams' set, though, featuring the outside of a boathouse, a wooden walkway, and even a workable rowboat. And Brenda Ricotelli's costumes are perfectly appropriate: Matt's three-piece suit in shades of beige and brown is especially felicitous. Finally, Karla Hartley's lighting is an eloquent tool, quietly evoking a romantic atmosphere.

Talley's Folly has limitations: it's not ambitious enough, it has no subtext of any importance, and it depends, at the conclusion, on a rather improbable coincidence. But it's also a play that gives his first important role to one of the area's finest young actors. I recommend that you catch Jack Holloway while he's just getting started.

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