Sentimental Journey

The setting is the home of a wealthy Jewish family in Atlanta in 1939. A brightly decorated Christmas tree stands in a corner. Though Adolph, the breadwinner and de facto paterfamilias (he's actually brother, brother-in-law and uncle to the numerous family members who occupy the premises), has read in the paper that Hitler has invaded Poland, the rest of the family is preoccupied with other things: the premiere of Gone With the Wind and the upcoming Ballyhoo. Their Jewishness is something to be hidden, deprecated or ignored.

A "ballyhoo," we learn from the dialogue, is a several-day social event for Atlanta's wealthy Jews of German descent. These socialites think Jews of Eastern European extraction as vulgar as the rest of Atlanta thinks them. The Ballyhoo culminates in a grand ball at which important alliances are formed and matches made. Will scatty Lala, aided by her bitter mother, Boo, find a date? Will elegant, Wellesley-educated cousin Sunny attend with Brooklyn-born, proudly Jewish Joe, whose relatives hail from Russia?

Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer-winning play is a well-made, conventional family drama, the kind that routinely earns accolades such as "romantic," "heartwarming" and "bittersweet." But it flirts with a darker subtext: In additon to the obvious themes of anti-Semitism, Jewish identity and the problems of assimilation, there are ugly currents swirling between the members of this family that are exacerbated by racism, though it is not their only cause. While highlighting what's funny and genial in the script, director Terry Dodd and his actors do not ignore its murkier aspects.

Lala could be played solely for laughs, as a sulky, out-of-it college dropout, but actress Jessica Austgen also shows that her character has the kinds of problems that can lead to real madness. Lala is both narcissistic and desperately insecure; she imagines writing a radio play or novel that will catapult her to stardom while remaining terrified of leaving the confines of her own house. Lou Anne Wright's performance as her bullying mother, Boo, gives us some idea why Lala's such a mess. Boo married a loser who was unable to find a toehold in the family business and left her nothing upon his death. Never permitted to work herself, Boo is supported -- like everyone else in the family -- by her brother Adolph. Her disappointment in her own life, and determination to see her daughter avoid a similar fate, are manifested in petty and often very funny ways, but Wright also drives home the rage and desperation that underlie Boo's eruptions.

Then there's lovely Sunny, Lala's virtuous cousin, a reader of Upton Sinclair who, though theoretically aware of the corruptions of wealth and the plight of the working class, reveals a truly breathtaking obliviousness and arrogance when pressed by Joe. The split in Atlanta's Jewish community is mirrored in the cousins: Sunny is blond to Lala's dark, educated to her cousin's ignorance, poised where Lala pitches and stumbles -- an Aryan ideal set against the kind of loud desperation associated with the shtetl. Unfortunately, Uhry doesn't stand by his own sometimes tough insights, and The Last Night of Ballyhoo keeps sliding into sentimentality. It's most entertaining when someone's being loud and nasty; by contrast, the love scenes tend to be insipid. After their blowup, Joe and Sunny need only exchange a few words for all dissension between them to disappear. Sunny's conversion is all it takes to make this ill-tempered, denial-crazed family eventually come to terms with its own Jewishness: A nice, harmless Jewishness has nothing to do with Hitler's murderous rampage in Europe, only with candles, challah and sitting down to a seder.

I have to confess that I'm not the ideal viewer for this play. The bickering Levis and Freitags don't know what's happening to the Jews in Europe during the same time period, but I do. As I watch, my murdered relatives seem to press against my skull. Uhry knows, too. And while I understand that he's using his characters' small failings and snobberies to get at some larger issues, it seems to me he has a greater responsibility here. Mentioning Hitler in a drama about Jews is like flashing a gun in a play's first act: It implies some major disruption or revelation. At some point, the damn thing has to go off.

If it is taken primarily as a family drama in which Judaism just happens to be the focus of the members' squabbles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo works well. It's funny and charming -- heartwarming, if you will, and bittersweet. If you're looking for any insight into racism, however, you won't find it here. The most deeply felt moments in the play are familial, as when Adolph remembers his lost love -- the girl on the tram he never managed to speak to -- or Boo looks back on her thwarted life. I'm not suggesting that this is an insignificant achievement: Uhry has much to say about the way families operate -- the mutual destruction and the mutual support, the way in which aggravation, endured long enough, becomes affection.

Terry Dodd has directed The Last Night of Ballyhoo with exquisite care, from the welcoming set to the mood music and warm lighting to the sensitive performances he has elicited from his fine cast. Lou Anne Wright sweeps everything before her as Boo, giving the character both depth and edge. Jessica Austgen is a vivid, pouting Lala, and Jennifer Stewart has dignity and grace as Sunny. Matthew Carlo Dente makes a suitably stalwart Joe, though one might wish for a little more of that Brooklyn mouthiness and swagger. Paul Page's Adolph is strong and sympathetic, Karen Erickson's Reba delightfully daffy. In the small role of the irresponsible rich kid, Peachy Weil, Todd Coulter comes close to stealing every scene he saunters into.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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