Who is a Jew? Will you go with me to the Ballyhoo ball? Those are two questions the Jewish upper-middle-class Freitag family kvetch about during the happenings of playwright Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo.
It’s December 1939 in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Freitag family is a study in assimilation, complete with a picture of General Robert E. Lee on the wall. The family features a Jewish man named Adolph, (in a play that takes place a few months after Hitler conquered Poland), who owns the Dixie Bedding Company; Adolph’s sister Boo Levy, a widow, who insists “Jewish Christmas trees don’t have stars”; a nerdy young woman, Lala, Boo’s daughter, who is obsessed with Gone with the Wind and is writing a novel entitled Though Your Sins Be Scarlet; as well as mother Reba Freitag (Adolf’s sister-in-law) and Reba’s daughter Sunny. There’s also Joe Farkas, recently relocated from New York City—Adolph’s employee; and lastly Peachy Weil, a suitor from Lake Charles, Louisiana. The family and their milieu put one in mind of characters in Driving Miss Daisy.
The cast, under Director Ilene Chalmers, deftly handled an extremely talky play. Spencer Kate Nelson, in her Bowie Community Theatre (BCT) debut, brought out the Scarlet O’Hara-like nuances of her character, Lala Freitag, who desperately wanted someone to take her to the hayrides and weenie roasts of the titular Ballyhoo. She made the most of scenes that had her huffing and puffing lines like: “We’re Jews, we have no place in society.”
Acerbic and sarcastic throughout her character’s arc, Jean Berard, a day time Spanish teacher, played Boo to perfection. All of her scenes were knockouts. Jeanne Louise, who appeared in BCT’s A Tuna Christmas, made Reba a sounding board for Boo. Glenn Singer, recently seen in BCT’s Absolutely Dead, brought odd mannerisms and facial expressions to Adolph. Michael Safko brought comic life to the joke-a-minute, red-haired Peachy.
Robin Schwartz’s Sunny brought to light the social strata in Atlanta at the time. The Ballyhoo was held at the Standard Club, which favored German Jews; by contrast, the Progressive Club favored Russian Jews like Joe Farkas. It was Sunny who complained about Jewish features, or lack thereof.
Andrew Rappa’s Farkas had good chemistry in his scenes with Schwartz and Nelson. His hat and suit were a study in 1930s flair, due to Costume Designer Linda Swann, who also gave Lala an impressive hoop-skirt dress.
The set was amazing, thanks to Set Designers Gene Valendo and Sascha Nelson, who also served as Set Decorator; Nelson and Chalmers also handled the properties, which included The Atlanta Journal newspaper prop. A working chandelier hung from the ceiling.
As Chalmer notes in the program for The Last Night of Ballyhoo, “This play is primarily about family and love, but most importantly faith.”
Chalmers and Assistant Director Ron Araujo have directed an evening of theater that will not only entertain but educate audiences about the Jewish experience in the South.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.