KPBS AIRDATE: DECEMBER 3, 1999
Christmastime, 1939. Atlanta is all a-flutter about the opening of “Gone With the Wind.” No one is going to let that nasty little moustached man thousands of miles away ruin their holiday with some silly invasion of Poland. The young girls are much more concerned with who’s going to escort them on “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” the big dance that caps the Jewish social season.
Playwright Alfred Uhry has done it again — created a humorous, poignant microcosm, populated by quirky characters, living their little Southern lives while Big Events whiz by in the world around them, and serious themes punctuate the laughter. Uhry’s first play, “Driving Miss Daisy,” won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1988. “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” was a 1997 Pulitzer finalist.
Once again, Uhry has a lot on his mind. Once again, he focuses his attention on the highly assimilated German Jews of the South, aching to fit in to the genteel, gentile society around them. The Levys even have a Christmas tree, though Boo, the monstrous matriarch, admonishes her daughter when she tries to put a star on top. “Jewish Christmas trees don’t have stars,” she snaps, as if it was written in all five Books of Moses. But the tree is a minor concern; Boo will just about die if Lala doesn’t get to the big dance at Ballyhoo, which is where all the right girls hook up with all the right kind of boys. Lala’s cousin Sunny, home from Wellesley, doesn’t much care about Ballyhoo.
But then her uncle, the hapless male in this estrogen-drenched environment, brings home a nice boy from Brooklyn. Sunny finds her date, but he stumbles blindly into two gnarly rats’ nests: the falsely hospitable, snooty Southern social milieu, and the surprising, seldom-revealed anti-Semitism of the German Jews. Those Eastern European types — the brash, working-class Jews who live up North, are shockingly referred to as “Yids” and “kikes.” The gentle Joe Farkas has a lot to learn, but of course, he has a lot to teach, too, in the playwright’s only serious misstep: tying up the ending in an unbelievably bright, happy, holiday ribbon.
But Uhry surely knows his hometown Southerners and Jews. His characters and dialogue are delightful, if a trifle emotionally manipulative, careening from moments of hilarity to angst, from superficial politics to sentimentality. Yet it all fits together, and it all works, in a tight, funny production at North Coast Repertory Theatre, directed by Cynthia Stokes.
She’s marshaled an outstanding cast, that puts all the colors and hues in this Southern family tapestry: Dagmar Krause Fields is a beautifully bitter, nasty Boo; and Pat DiMeo her ideal counterpart as the simple-minded sister-in-law who had a happy marriage and a thoroughly successful offspring. Joe Nesnow is lovably avuncular as the exasperated Uncle Adolph; Susan Clausen, with her ear-piercing voice, is perfect as lame-brained Lala, who meets her match in the smarmily wicked Peachy Weil, devilishly and hilariously played by Derek Travis Collard. As the ingénues, Melissa Supera and Robert Borzych make a charming couple, though she doesn’t have much character to work with, and he isn’t quite credible as a New York Jew. But both are first-rate, and their interactions sparkle. Marty Burnett has placed all these eccentrics in another of his stellar sets, this one filled with fine-grained wood and lush antiques.
It’s a lovely production all told, and a yummy alternative to the typically treacly holiday fare.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.