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Monday, 05 December 2011 22:45

Having a ball

Written by Bob Wilcox
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newjewishtheatre.org/John Lamb
newjewishtheatre.org/John Lamb

The outlines of the story are familiar: A socially ambitious mother pushes her daughter to make an advantageous marriage; the love of another young woman is threatened by religious differences.

The story is given its own particular twist by Alfred Uhry, who sets his play The Last Night of Ballyhoo in the well-assimilated German-Jewish community of Atlanta, where he grew up. And he sets his play during the holiday season – a purely secular celebration for his characters, who easily accommodate various decorative trappings of Christmas. The year is 1939, a time of turmoil both internationally and domestically.

The domestic turmoil arises in large part because of the celebration of Ballyhoo, an annual festive gathering in Atlanta of Jews from all over the South, culminating in a grand ball on the last night of Ballyhoo.

Boo Levy is determined that her daughter Lala will be escorted to the ball by Peachy Weil, the scion of a wealthy and prominent Jewish family from Louisiana. Lala wants this too, but her immaturity and low self-esteem get in the way of her pursuing the young man as enthusiastically as her mother would like. (You catch a few echoes of the relationship of The Glass Menagerie's Amanda and Laura in this mother-daughter relationship.) Boo is something of a snob, and ambition, insecurity, and even her love for her daughter can drive her to be cruel, but Peggy Billo's playing of the fullness of all these very human qualities holds our sympathy for Boo even at her worst. Rachel Fenton makes Lala's childish qualities sometimes charming as well as irritating, and Dylan Duke's Peachy, also a snob and a boyish cut-up, is probably a good match for Lala.

Lala's cousin Sunny Freitag has the blonde beauty and the Wellesley education that Lala, a college drop-out, envies. Sunny's ripening attachment to the young man her uncle has hired for the family's bedding company is the one threatened by religious differences. Joe Farkas is also Jewish, but he's from Brooklyn and his family hails from eastern Europe, immigrants looked down on by Jews from Germany. They're too Jewish. Alexandra Woodruff and Adam Moskal keep us pulling for this couple, who also make a good match.

Greg Johnston brings a lot of warmth and wisdom to the role of Adolph Freitag, the uncle of both young women and head of the family and of the family firm. Laurie McConnell charms and delights as Sunny's mother, perhaps not the brightest bulb on that Christmas tree but an occasionally surprising source of good sense.

As usual with the realistic plays at the New Jewish Theatre, Justin Barisonek's set repays attention to its details, as do the costumes of Michele Friedman Siler, the lights of Michael Sullivan, the properties designed by Peggy Knock, and the sound design of Donald Schroeder. You probably won't notice the details of Gary Wayne Barker's masterful direction because it is so unobtrusively right.

At the New Jewish Theatre, The Last Night of Ballyhoo gives off a warm glow for this or any season.

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