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The Last Night of Ballyhoo
By Joan Eshkenazi
The Last Night of Ballyhoo is an apology by the author, Alfred Uhry, who is trying to come to terms with his own quest for identity. Jews comprise a prominent minority group coping in a Christian society. Without a strong sense of self, one's place in the existing social structure can be amorphous at best, with the character coloring of a chameleon. We find such a family in Atlanta who display the required Christmas tree as a symbol of the season, devoid of any religious significance. In Adolph Freitag's house, Jewish customs have long ago been buried in cerebral tombs. Only when Joe Farkas, the "Eastern Parkway Jew (a street in Brooklyn, NY)," enters the scene, do we find their modus vivendi challenged.
Jessica Hecht as Lala Levy is excellent. Only by breathing in the spirit of Gone with the Wind, which is having its premiere as the play opens, does she psychologically ward off rejection. By being "Scarlett O'Goldberg," Lala can momentarily enter society. Dana Ivey as Boo Levy, is effective as the no-nonsense mother of Lala. Boo is a survivor in a South where even wealthy "society" Jews are isolated. She will do what she must to keep up the appearance of respectability. The change from the hardened home voice to the honey dripped telephone tone is delightful!
Reba Freitag, Lala's aunt, impressively played by Celia Western, gently accepts her position. She observes, she knits, she remarks to her daughter (a student at Wellesley), "Higher education can lead to insanity." Her daughter, Sunny (Arija Barekkis), is home on holiday and looks forward to returning to school and a more meaningful existence. She questions the social norms, but without rancor.
The family is held together by Adolph Freitag (movingly played by Terry Weaver), who owns the Dixie Bedding Company. His employee, Joe Farkas, represents the other type of Jew, the type not welcome in the uppercrust German-Jewish society of Atlanta in 1939. This Eastern European Jew, effectively played by Paul Rudd, has no trouble with his place in society. He's familiar with prejudice. He just cannot understand its existence within the Jewish community.
Ballyhoo is the Jewish answer to the Christian, in this case Episcopalian, cotillion. The pecking order is a fact of nature and by nature humans also function in a restrictive society. Being a restrictive Jew in a restrictive Christian society is double jeopardy. Adolph struggles to come to terms with this condition which makes him and Joe the play's most believable characters. The others border on stereotypes and conjure up past hackneyed images. I understand what Alfred Uhry is saying, but I would have preferred it told with more depth. The entire cast is excellent. Stephen Largay with his cheerful entrance as Peachy Weil gives a colorful, winsome performance. Many of us can identify with the moving performance of Arija Bareikis as she leads the character of Sunny into the realm of roots.
Ron Lagomarsino has directed the fine cast with a sure hand and John Lee Beatty has furnished the Levy home with all the comforts associated with money and respectability. Jane Greenwood's costumes are authentic 1939, (and in one instance, authentic Scarlett). The secondary railroad car set also works well to round out the sense of a generously produced, old-fashioned play.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo is a pleasant play. We just expect more from the author of Driving Miss Daisy. The one-liners are sharp and we do listen. When we hear "Shabbat Shalom" at the end, we do understand.