New York — A Tale Told Play by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Marshall W. Mason. "A Tale Told" brings us to the third in Lanford Wilson's cycle of five plays about the Talley family of Lebanon, Missouri. The new drama at the Circle Repertory Theater reveals what happened up at the Talley place on the evening of July 4, 1944, while Matt Friedman (of "Talley's Folly") wooed and won the reluctant Sally Talley at the boathouse down on the river. Sally (Trish Hawkins) appears only briefly in the present segment as she makes her escape from the toils of Talleyism.
The central figure in "A Tale Told," a title borrowed from Psalm 90, is old Calvin Talley (Fritz Weaver). Teetering between senility and an acute command of every mean faculty, the ancient widower tyrannizes over his weakling son, Eldon (Michael Higgins), as well as everyone else within the second of his rasping voice. Calvin proclaims himself a Christian but his ways have been the ways of shrewdness and ruthless cunning.
It is Calvin who extricates Eldon from the results of a long past adultery and who forces the decision that will make the Talleys even richer by selling their prosperous clothes-manufacturing business to a large corporation. At the time of the play, the factory's hefty profits come from turning out uniforms for the army. The ghostly figure of Timmy Talley (David Ferry), word of whose death on Saipan climaxes act one, provides Mr. Wilson with the opportunity for some observations on the inglories of war.
Proceeding from a different context, "A Tale Told" lacks the lyricism of "Talley's Folly" or the uninhibited candor of "Fifth of July" (still running on Broadway), with its view of contemporary Talleys. The new work recalls the conventions of traditional family drama. One preview spectator made a perhaps inevitable comparison with Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes," the revival of which stars Elizabeth Taylor. Some of Arthur Miller's plays also come to mind. Certainly Mr. Wilsom makes liberal use of familiar plot twists and devices in unfolding this tale of greed and meanness.
But the author is still his own man. The strengths of "A Tale Told" lie in its vivid stage portraiture and sharp, often comic, dialogue. The roles are actors' roles and they are performed with relish under Marshall W. Mason's diretion. Besides Mr. Weaver's fiercely intimidating Calvin, the Talley hostilities are forcefully conducted by Elizabeth Sturges as the fatally ill Lottie and, at least momentarily, by Mr. Higgins as the beleaguered Eldon. The costumes are by Laura Crow and the lighting by Dennis Parichy. If "A Tale Told" is something of a disappointment, it is not without solid dramatic and theatrical impact in the old-fashioned manner.