Jews Down South

LTW's 'Last Night of Ballyhoo' is controlled, well-acted entertainment

Not all American Jews sound like they're from New York City; only those in Florida and Arizona do. Yet the media image of the neurotic Jewish Manhattanite is so pervasive that Alfred Uhry's plays can trigger a little cognitive dissonance: They're about Jewish families in the South, people who sound just as Southern as all the other folks living around them.

Really being able to fit in to genteel Southern society is an entirely different matter, as Uhry reminds us in his Tony-winning comedy The Last Night of Ballyhoo, now on stage at Live Theatre Workshop. It's 1939, and there are rumors of some sort of unpleasantness going on with that Hitler fellow in Germany and Poland, but that's not what's preoccupying the Atlanta household of Adolph Freitag, a successful businessman. Gone With the Wind is about to open, and there's a big to-do in Atlanta, but an even bigger to-do is only a few days away: Ballyhoo, an annual prom-like festivity that draws young men and women from the finest Jewish families throughout the South. Whether any gentiles in Atlanta take notice of this grand affair is a question that Uhry doesn't even ask, but he doesn't need to, because Atlanta's Jewish community seems to be operating independently, in its own strange, parallel universe.

The pecking order within marginalized societies can be just as strict--and heartless--as in the outside world, and so it is in the Freitag family's circle. They're not only well-to-do; they're of German heritage, which entitles them to all sorts of social advantages denied "the other kind," those whose families came from Eastern Europe and Russia.

And so one of the household's grown daughters, Lala, and her mother, nicknamed Boo, are all a-twitter over the possibility that Lala won't find a date for the big ball on the last night of Ballyhoo. And that Hitler fella in Germany? Well, fiddle-dee-dee, they'll think about that tomorrow.

The household relationships are a little complicated. Adolph lives with his widowed sister--that's Boo--and her daughter, as well as with Reba, his widowed sister-in-law, and her daughter, Sunny, who is pretty much a surrogate daughter for the never-married Adolph.

This is not a religious family. Its members have only a vague notion of when Passover falls, and a nice big Christmas tree glows in the living room. A gentleman caller from New York, one more keenly aware of his Jewish heritage, is taken aback by the tree. Sunny assures him that having a Christmas tree "doesn't mean we're not Jewish." He replies, "Right. It just means you don't want to be."

This visitor is Joe, one of Adolph's new employees; he and Sunny quickly develop a romance, but what threatens it is not the antics of Sunny's oddball family, but the fact that for this family, being Jewish is merely a social inconvenience, while it's something much deeper and more positive than that for Joe.

If Uhry makes a misstep in this script, it's that in the beginning, he keeps us far too long in the company of the family's most disagreeable members. Lala, played with exactly the right childish, melodramatic self-absorption by Megan Patno, fled college because she wasn't invited into the hoity-toity Jewish sorority, and it's clear within five minutes why. She's only marginally more annoying than Boo, who is, in her own way, almost as self-centered as Lala, and just as Old South as Scarlett O'Hara. The difference is that Boo's vanity is social, not personal, and she spends her days trying to maintain the family's position, and not fraternizing with the "other kind."

It takes Uhry a while to bring on characters we can care about: the sensible Adolph, the out-of-his-element Joe (shocked by the bigotry he sees within this Jewish community) and eventually the aptly named Sunny, a smart, pretty college girl who is really the heart of this play, even though she's either offstage or simply quiet most of the time.

Holli Henderson, who usually plays extroverted, even zany characters, is nicely subdued yet alluring as Sunny; she musters just the right smart-girl appeal for the role. Eric Schumacher keeps Joe down to earth, not letting the character become the hectoring bore he could be in a more superficial performance. Indeed, director Sabian Trout keeps all the actors under control, not letting them play to stereotype and caricature (except, to an extent, Patno's Lala, a character with built-in histrionics).

Bill Epstein is a warm, gentle Adolph, and Peg Peterson as Sunny's mother doesn't push the character's slight case of air-headedness too far. Even Toni Press-Coffman as the hardened and resentful Boo avoids nesting with harpies; her main concern, it's clear, is not her own personal prominence, but the good of her family. And Gary McGaha makes an effective late appearance as the smug, privileged boy who promises to give Lala a fine last night at Ballyhoo.

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