"The Last Night of Ballyhoo," now on stage at the Granite Theater, is exactly what its director, David Jepson, said it would be — "a wonderful, sweet romantic comedy."
With plenty of food for thought.
Set in Atlanta in 1939, the play takes place during the world premiere of "Gone With the Wind," and centers around members of an upper middle class southern family — the Freitag-Levys — as they humorously struggle with their Jewish identity while revealing their own prejudices. Hitler and the eve of WWII looms in the background.
Jepson's twin brother Michael (perfectly) plays the patriarch of the family, Adolph Freitag; the amiable, loving anchor in a family full of strong women. Adolph, who oversees the family business, the Dixie Bedding Company, lives with his sister-in-law, Reba Freitag (Christine Reynolds is a hoot as she mildly knits throughout the performance;) his sister, Boo Levy (well-known Westerly actor Mary Sue Frishman returns to the Granite stage as the stereotypical "Jewish Mother") and his niece, Lala Levy (Sarah Reed, in her Granite debut, is terrific. I hope we'll see more of her on the Granite stage. Her pauses are pitch-perfect; her eye rolls, hilarious; and her foot-stomping fabulous.)
The play begins with Lala decorating the Christmas tree and joyfully singing "The First Noel." Enter her mother, Boo, who sternly stops her daughter from putting a star on top of the tree. It symbolizes the birth of Jesus, she tells her daughter, and therefore has no place on top of a Jewish Christmas tree.
That's pretty much the foolish (il)logic used throughout the play which lays bare the prejudices against and among and between Jews in a fun, refreshing fashion. Soon after the incident with the star, we learn that a formal ball, Ballyhoo, will soon be held at their German-Jewish Country Club, the capstone of the social season. We also learn that Reba's daughter, Sunny Freitag (the lovely Ali Mitchell, back for her third Granite appearance, plays this role with a powerful grace and simplicity) is coming home from Wellesley for the holidays, is the apple of her uncle's eye, and more interested in books than in fancy dances. Certainly not Ballyhoo. That is until the new salesman recently hired by Uncle Adolph hired comes along. Joe Farkas, played by the talented Hassan DeMartino, is the new salesman, an attractive eligible bachelor and an Eastern Europe Jew. Soon we learn that the German Jews who lived in Atlanta in the 1930s fancied themselves a cut above their Eastern European brothers and sisters. DeMartino nails the dialect and demeanor of a genuine New Yorker.
Company regular Tom Steenburg, wearing a orangey-blonde brassy wig, plays Peachy Weil, the engaging jokester frat boy who has invited Lala to Ballyhoo. Steenburg plays the role with such foolishness, flair and fun he has the audience in stitches.
In a 1997 interview with the New York Times, Uhry, who also wrote "Driving Miss Daisy," said he was raised in the South, "around a lot of women. I would play with trucks on the floor and listen to the women talk."
This is quite apparent in Uhry's characters and their genuine dialogue. While it is uplifting to see such strong, complicated women with different, well-defined personalities on stage before us, it's a challenge to square the play with current events and the appalling rise of anti-semitism around the world.
Maybe laughter is the best medicine though. Maybe its a healthy exercise to look, through a humorous lens, at our own biases. Maybe its a good thing to be encouraged, gently, to think about stereotypes and prejudices.
At the end of the play, Sunny, seemingly embracing her Jewish identity, sings a haunting and beautiful chant during what appears to be the first family Shabbat. Temporarily we are transported ... beyond the horror and heartbreak of the Congregation Chabad and Tree of Life synagogues ... and to a place where we feel kinship and closeness, healing, humor and love.