Story: It's December 1939, and the genteel folks of Atlanta are atwitter with the impending debut of the film version of Margaret Mitchell's Civil War drama, Gone With the Wind. Hollywood legends will be in attendance at the gala and Lala Freitag, a somewhat spoiled college dropout and member of a wealthy Jewish family, yearns to be a part of the action. Simultaneously, she and her pushy mother Boo are pulling all the strings to get Lala a date to the posh event of the German-Jewish social set, Ballyhoo.
Her Uncle Adolph, a bachelor who runs the family's business and supports widowed Boo, Lala and widowed sister-in-law Reba, isn't concerned about Ballyhoo or the new flick but is concerned about Hitler's invasion of Poland. He's also most interested in the impending arrival of his beloved niece, Sunny, who's away at Wellesley College. In fact, Adolph sends a favorite new employee, a New York transplant named Joe Farkas, to pick her up at the train station. Joe didn't seem overly intrigued with Lala when he met her, but is quite smitten with the blonde Sunny. Lala, though, has now set her sights on an upper-crust friend, Peachy Weil, who's coming in from Louisiana for the big Southern Jewish shindig, hopeful for a grand last night of Ballyhoo.
Highlights: Alfred Uhry, who also wrote the delightful Driving Miss Daisy, won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1997 for this warm, nostalgic and engaging story based on his own childhood memories. I've seen this drama in four different productions and it remains a charming and well-polished gem that clearly demonstrates Uhry's gift as a playwright and storyteller par excellence. The New Jewish Theatre presentation benefits from the meticulous and carefully crafted direction of Gary Wayne Barker, who helps his splendid cast delineate the vices and virtues of various characters with surety and aplomb for a rich theatrical experience.
Other Info: Justin Barisonek's comfortable set design includes the well-appointed Freitag living room at the center, complete with a Christmas tree that the secular Jewish family has included in its holiday celebrations for years as they attempt to blend in with their Gentile neighbors. There's also a spacious dining room at the rear for a few select scenes, all ably lit by Michael Sullivan and complemented with scenic art contributed by Scott Schoonover.
Costume designer Michele Friedman Siler adorns the ladies in dresses and uncomfortable shoes, befitting the era, along with a pair of elegant gowns worn by Rachel Fenton and Alexandra Woodruff as Lala and Sunny, respectively, and a range of suits for the men, whether the peacock look for Peachy or the business suits of Adolph and Joe. Tara McCarthy provides wigs where appropriate, Peggy Knock adds the right touches for the times as props designer and Donald Smith provides the background holiday music.
The cast works beautifully together in true ensemble fashion, each taking center stage when required to smoothly advance the story. Fenton does a fabulous job as the impetuous, shallow and fairly desperate Lala, a young woman hung up on meaningless infatuations that she considers important, doubtless driven by her relentlessly nasty mother. Peggy Billo shows us all the unsavory aspects of Boo, who seems to have a knack for making unpleasant comments almost as second nature, even if her own ambitions were curtailed by the conventions of the era.
Laurie McConnell is delightful as ditzy Reba, a woman who seems oblivious to the nasty aspects of life, perhaps more as a defense mechanism than superficiality. After all, she's raised Sunny, a bright, popular lass whom Woodruff portrays with just the right combination of sweetness and vulnerability. She's particularly effective in scenes with Adam Moskal as Joe, a New York Jew who doesn't tolerate the inter-racial prejudice shown by German Jews in Atlanta to their Eastern European brethren, but is torn between his values and his love for Sunny.
Greg Johnston is endearing as Adolph, the anchor of the family who admired the love of his life from a few seats away on a daily bus ride but chose instead to care for the family business and support his relatives. As Peachy Weil, Dylan Duke is consistently amusing showing the elite, effete Peachy's cruel humor and generally obnoxious personality while considering himself quite the dapper fellow.
Uhry is an accomplished writer who knows how to create believable characters. With The Last Night of Ballyhoo, director Barker and his talented players deliver a most welcome holiday gift.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: December 7, 8, 10, 11, 14, 15, 17, 18
Tickets: From $35.50 to $39.50; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Photos courtesy of John Lamb