Few American playwrights have demonstrated the ability to effectively transform their vivid childhood memories into something other than a highly personal cautionary tale. Mere mention of the words "socially relevant family play" is usually enough to conjure bizarre images of a metaphorical free-for-all between the Bronx-accented denizens of yesteryear's kitchen dramas and the mealy-mouthed survivors of today's therapy sessions.
Not so with the too-infrequent efforts of Alfred Uhry, the only playwright to have won an Oscar, a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize (the latter for a poignant one-act based on Uhry's grandmother, Driving Miss Daisy, which was made into the award-winning film starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman). The 61-year-old dramatist's latest gem of a memory play, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, is an altogether refreshing, ordinarily faceted romantic comedy that illuminates the shadowy subject of intra-ethnic prejudice. Featuring a solid ensemble of performers, the Denver Center Theatre Company's splendid production is being presented at the Ricketson Theatre under the superb direction of Anthony Powell.
Commissioned by the 1996 Atlanta Olympics organizing committee, Ballyhoo is, according to Uhry, intentionally set during the last time Atlanta was in the national spotlight: the December 1939 opening of the movie Gone With the Wind. As the play begins, the household of successful businessman and lifelong bachelor Adolph Freitag (Edward James Hyland) busies itself with Christmas preparations and plans to attend the film's premiere. Gently foreshadowing the play's essential conflict, Adolph's niece, Lala Levy (Mara Stephens), removes an ornament from the top of a tall evergreen after another character notes, "Jewish Christmas trees don't have stars." A few moments later, Lala's mother, Buelah "Boo" Levy (portrayed by Christine McMurdo-Wallis), chastises her daughter for having dropped out of the University of Michigan. Seems that, following her failure to secure a bid to join the "right" sorority, the socially inept Lala accepted an invitation to affiliate with another group that, as Boo declares, was suitable only for "the other kind." Little do we realize that, far from casting aspersions on unprincipled college girls or anti-Semitic sorority snobs, the German-Jewish Boo is instead voicing her bigoted opinion that all Eastern European Jews are socially inferior.
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Evidently unmoved by the news that Hitler has just invaded Poland, Lala and Boo discuss their plans for the upcoming celebration of Ballyhoo, a Southern-style debutante ball sponsored by the upper-crust, German-Jewish-only Standard Club (an association that, in reality, once claimed playwright Uhry's parents as members). Encouraged by the memory of Lala's flirtatious relationship with an abrasive practical jokester, Peachy Weil (Rick Wasserman), the domineering Boo attempts to make arrangements for Peachy to escort Lala to the dance. However, Boo's scheme is momentarily thrown off course when Adolph's up-and-coming business associate, a Jew of Russian heritage named Joe Farkas (Aaron Serotsky), drops by the house and unintentionally earns Lala's affections. Following his abrupt exit, Boo shows her true colors by unashamedly referring to the Brooklyn-born Joe as "that kike who has no manners." Complicating matters further, Joe eventually falls in love with Boo's niece, Sunny Freitag (Kate Gleason), an alluring, home-for-the-holidays Wellesley student whose dotty widowed mother, Reba Freitag (Robin Groves), also resides under her brother-in-law Adolph's benevolent roof.
To his credit, director Powell's poetic approach embellishes the thematic nuances and enhances the lyrical undercurrents of Uhry's enjoyable story. Powell's careful orchestration of Joe and Sunny's first living-room meeting, for instance, instantly and wordlessly conveys everything we need to know about a critical turning point in the drama. Clearly swept off her feet by Joe but determined to hide her reaction, Sunny takes in a quick, barely perceptible breath and steps back slightly as she struggles to maintain her composure. From her perch on the stairway landing, Boo immediately recognizes the would-be lovers' mutual attraction with a sharp glance that bespeaks a woman scorned by both an unwelcome outsider and her own blood relatives. Across the beautifully appointed living room (the set was designed by Michael Ganio), Lala slowly implodes even as she exudes a crestfallen spirit that has weathered one too many romantic disappointments. Infused with the discomforting zeal that a young man experiences when he finally meets his true love, Joe merely stands in awe of the radiant Sunny. And, flushed with the certainty that one niece is about to find happiness while another will always be found wanting, Adolph surveys matters from afar and with a scarcely audible sigh resigns himself, however unwillingly, to maintaining his equanimity.
Powell also elicits a series of first-rate portrayals from his talented performers. Leading the company is the scintillating Gleason, whose headstrong Sunny is the exact opposite of the hilarious, dim-witted slattern Gleason expertly portrayed in last spring's mostly forgettable DCTC production of Don Quixote. Whether she's impishly describing Ballyhoo's participants as "dressed-up Jews, dancing around, kissing their elbows and wishing they could be Episcopalians" or passionately delivering a scathing rebuke to Joe's assertion that Sunny has betrayed her Jewish heritage, Gleason's marvelous portrait is always enchanting. Her well-staged Act Two entrance in a stunning midnight-blue evening gown (Andrew V. Yelusich designed the tasteful costumes) wins our hearts for the remainder of the two-and-one-quarter-hour drama. As Sunny's mother, Groves combines a down-home charm with a self-conscious forgetfulness--a combination that deservedly earns the lion's share of the evening's laughter. University of Northern Colorado alumna McMurdo-Wallis invests her sublime portrayal of Boo with a mixture of bitter defiance and back-to-the-wall desperation that effectively conveys her desire to see Lala secure something of a future. Stephens's appropriately awkward rendering of the overly loud, almost tomboyish daughter certainly gives you enough reasons to justify Boo's concern. Imbued with soft-spoken bluster and good-natured humor, Hyland's endearing father figure is a model of steadying gentility. And Serotsky and Wasserman portray their respective, diametrically opposed suitors in a manner that convinces you that a young man's hopes are sometimes enough to surmount even the most difficult of life's obstacles. It's just one of several magical qualities in this gratifying production that recognizes the power of shared dreams to defeat the most personal of nightmares.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo, through November 28 at the Ricketson Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 303-893-4100.