Tinsel and garlands are festooned about a beautiful 10 foot tall Christmas tree. Easy to be captivated with such an exquisite Christmas touch. But, wait, the tree is standing tall on the Edlavitch DCJCC Theater J stage.
A double take is in order. No, the DCJCC has not been taken over by a developer with new plans for the venerable DC Jewish Community Center. Phew. The tree is a key design element for Theater J’s self-described “Chanukah Cheer” with The Last Night of Ballyhoo. The tree is one of the many classy, refined designs (Daniel Conway is scenic designer, Colin K. Bills is lighting designer, Timothy J. Jones is props designer) for Theater J’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo deftly directed by local talent Amber McGinnis.
If you are not familiar with Ballyhoo, it is Alfred Uhry’s look back into Southern Jewish nostalgia based upon his own life’s experiences. The Last Night of Ballyhoo was the winner of the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play (in one of the weaker years for new plays on Broadway).
So, what has Alfred Uhury given theater goers? It is the December 1939. The Freitag’s and Levy’s are at home getting their upper-class digs ready for Christmas. Well, up to a point; a star on the top of the Christmas tree is a bit too “goyish.” The Atlanta movie premiere of the soon-to-be mega hit Gone With the Wind has also brought hoopla.
And then there is a perennial local Southern custom: the Ballyhoo. It is an extravagant, invitation-only, country club event so certain assimilated eligible Jewish young men and women can appear, at their parents’ request, in hopes of finding a good match to marry.
Ballyhoo is set, as well, only a few months after Hitler’s army invaded Poland. But as a number of Ballyhoo characters suggest, Hitler and Europe are so far away to be of critical concern.
Theater J’s production could have easily been a creaky ride back into yesteryear, to be enjoyed by a select audience. Thankfully, with McGinnis’ “don’t look back” directing talents, the acting chops and charms of her admirable cast, and the gorgeous production design, there is plenty to admire at this Ballyhoo. McGinnis is no mere traffic cop giving blocking cues to a veteran cast. Rather, she guides a terrific balance between banter and sharp pokes; between humorous one-liners and meaty inter-family squabbles centered on Jewish self-loathing; between meticulously timed on-stage freezes and drop-dead slow burns. She has a clear sense of all-important character development in a play in which nuance is the right call. Let me add that the mood setting musical transitions during scene changes are gems with Justin Schmitz’s sound design.
The scrumptious Ballyhood cast includes a bevy of abundant talent.
Shayna Blass is Lala Levy, a 20-something daughter with big dreams, now living at home after dropping out of college. Blass gives her Lala a nervous quality; an awkward, high-maintenance demeanor. As the play progresses Blass evolves Lala into someone the audience can sympathize with, even having several delicious moments that I will not ruin for you even with a spoiler-alert. Just be alert for stairs and one special gown. (Thank you costume designer Kelsey Hunt for the rapture you gave me when that gown came into view).
Lala is up against her sharp tongued, bitterly disappointed widowed mother Boo Levy. Boo is of little help, let alone sympathy, for her Lala. Played to a sharp point by Susan Rome, Boo is full of snappy one liners that could melt permafrost. When she delivers several nasty pejoratives for Jews, the DCJCC audiences shuddered into silence before letting out a breath.
Opposite of the Lala and Boo characters are the widowed Reba Freitag and her daughter Sunny Freitag. Reba, who is Boo’s sister-in-law, is played with appeal by Julie-Ann Elliott. She softly presents a dizzy wit. Madeline Rose Burrows portrays daughter Sunny, a brainy, assured, independent college student. As Sunny, Burrows throws off one comic line about self-loathing that brought the House down into knowing laughter about itself.
Sasha Olinick is a pleasure to watch as Adolph Freitag, a bachelor and owner of the business that provides the financial resources for the family’s upper-class existence. An avid newspaper reader, Hitler is not far away to him. He also brings home a young man who sets some hearts a flutter and annoys others. The new young man is Joe Farkas, a Northerner from New York City. As portrayed by Zack Powell, Joe is brash and confident, at least by Atlanta Jewish standard. He is a young man in a hurry to succeed. He does not fear or hide his Jewish roots and traditions. He is aware and fears what Hitler will do for he has relatives still in Europe. And, there is Josh Adams as Peachy Weil a young man with an over-powering comic smart-aleck attitude on the look-out for a wife.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo will especially enthrall those for whom what is depicted on stage has a strong affinity in their own personal lives. It is has a final curtain that can be expected to bring knowing misty eyes to many. For others, Theater J’s production of The Last Night at Ballyhoo is winning and worthy with a director and cast more than up to the challenge and toll that time has taken on the Uhry script.
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo plays through December 31, 2017, at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.