|Katherine Roundy ("Sunny") and Jay Dressler ("Joe")|
By Tina Arth
Every once in a while I am treated to a hidden theatrical gem, and The Last Night Of Ballyhoo by playwright Alfred Uhry (better known for Driving Miss Daisy), definitely fits the bill. In the hands of a fine team from tiny Mask & Mirror Community Theatre, Uhry’s work comes to life with a complex and moving mixture of comedy, angst, bigotry, jealousy, and love that cannot help but touch the audience.
The story is set in 1939 Atlanta in the home of the wealthy Freitag/Levy household. The presence of a small Christmas tree and surrounding discussion make it clear that while it’s a Jewish household, they adhere to a standard of class-based, genteel Southern Judaism that is more about social standing and acceptance than honoring the Shabbat – for them, Judaism is an accident of birth to be camouflaged, not a religion to the embraced. The plot revolves around the five residents, Adolph Frietag, sister Beulah (“Boo”) Levy, sister-in-law Reba Freitag, Boo’s daughter Lala, and Reba’s daughter Sunny. Two young men round out the cast: Adolph’s new assistant Joe Farkas (a Brooklyn Jew, and thus very much a horse of a different color) and the socially desirable, if somewhat odd, Peachy Weil, an import from Lake Charles, Louisiana.
While Hitler’s Germany is ominously on the move in Europe, Boo’s overriding concern is finding Lala a date for a big dance (held at a posh “restricted” country club on the last night of the upscale Jewish community’s annual Ballyhoo celebration). The flamboyant, awkward Lala is yet another step removed from reality – her obsession with the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind has released an inner Southern Belle perhaps best left confined. Boo and Lala are palpably jealous of Sunny, a quietly attractive and brilliant Wellesley student who is clearly the apple of her uncle Adolph’s eye. As the story unfolds, Joe forces Sunny to examine the class bias with which she was raised, and the whole group learns a bit about what it means to be part of a Jewish family and community.
There are only seven cast members, and each deserves mention, as each plays a critical role with amazing finesse. Benjamin Philip’s “Adolph” is the salt of the earth – steady, hard-working, fair, quietly loving. Life has not worked out the way he thought it would, but Philip gives his character a steady intelligence and dignity that make him one of the most consistently likeable characters in the production. Virginia Kincaid’s “Boo” is completely opposite – angry, jealous, shrew-like – but Kincaid gives her character an undercurrent of maternal frustration and pathos that somehow engenders the audience’s sympathy. As sister-in-law “Reba,” Diana LoVerso provides much of the evening’s comic relief – not the shiniest star in the family constellation, she delivers the most absurdly literal replies and retorts with a wide-eyed innocence.
Kathryn Schelonka (“Lala”) somehow manages to portray the family drama queen without going over the top – not an easy feat when throwing a temper tantrum on the living room floor in a hoop skirt better suited to Scarlett O’Hara. Despite the comedy inherent in some of her situations, she always goes for the dramatic import rather than the cheap laugh. Katherine Roundy’s “Sunny” is serious and quiet – a lovely intellectual more interested in the works of Upton Sinclair than Margaret Mitchell. Roundy’s best moments come when she talks about growing up Jewish in Atlanta and when she is forced to confront and overcome her own inner biases.
The two young men, ultimately suitors to Lala and Sunny, are worlds apart. Robert Altieri manages to make “Peachy” sarcastic, flippant, occasionally casually mean, but still somewhat likeable because of his wit and honesty. Jay Dressler’s “Joe” is superbly drawn – the quintessential outsider, with a Brooklyn accent and attitude to match. Dressler gives the character an intensity and intelligence that really drive the fundamental conflicts of the production.
Director Jayne Furlong has achieved something truly beautiful, and (while she gives all credit to her cast) there is a consistency to the actors’ dedication and focus that reflect a good director’s careful hand – I found myself trying to simultaneously watch all of the actors because they never let down, even when they were not the center of attention. Furlong’s set design is detailed and functional, allowing for the frequent entrances and exits inherent in a Southern drama.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo is so good that it demands the largest audiences possible in the compact space available. The show deserves to be a sellout, and I hope audiences will find their way to Tigard to enjoy this little gem.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo runs through November 20 at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on November 10, 11, 12 and 19 and 2:00 p.m. on November 13 and 20. Please note that there is no show on Friday, November 18 and there is a show on Thursday, November 10.