Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: NOVEMBER 14, 2008
“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” makes me think about the election. Of course, these days, everything makes me think about the election. But one of the great ironies of this year’s history-making day was that, just as one oppressed group was breaking down barriers, another was being denied equality. And many of those who voted in favor of Proposition 8, that is to say, against the rights of gays and lesbians, were themselves underrepresented minorities.
And that brings me to back to Alfred Uhry’s comic drama, set in Atlanta in 1939. The outsiders here are Southern Jews. They have money, they have taste, they have beautiful homes. But they still can’t get into the best country clubs. And with Hitler gaining steam and power overseas, what do they do? They look down on and shut out those ‘other Jews,’ the ones from Eastern Europe they view as lower class and inferior to those with German ancestry.
Intra-cultural discrimination is an ugly reality in many minority groups. And Uhry , recalling his own childhood in the South, exposes it for all its narrow-minded superficiality. The real concern for the Freitag family, despite Hitler’s advance into Poland , is the opening of “Gone with the Wind,” and the big dance at Ballyhoo, the wannabe-Episcopalian cotillion the Jews have fashioned for themselves.
The two widowed aunts are fine with the Christmas tree in the parlor; but they’re all bent out of shape about their daughters, who aren’t married and don’t yet have a date for the big dance. One is an odd and unstable college dropout who’s reminiscent of Laura in Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie.” Lala is also a fantasist who expects too much and ends up with too little when a ‘Gentleman Caller’ pays a visit. And she has to compete with her beautiful, non-Jewish-looking cousin Sunny, who scores at Wellesley , snags the guy and is the only one who actually confronts the inbred bigotry in the family.
Sounds kinda serious, doesn’t it? At Scripps Ranch Theatre, Director Tim Irving effectively mines the depth of the characters and their interactions. But he also has a gift for comedy, and the humor runs high in this Tony Award-winning play that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1997.
The ensemble is excellent, a wonderful mix of old pros like Dana Hooley and Jill Drexler as the dotty aunts and newcomers like Alex Chernow , fresh out of high school, as the young man with the New York dialect and the incredulity about racism within his own ranks. He teaches them all a thing or two — about their religion and their self-respect.
There’s plenty more we could all learn about tolerance and acceptance… especially in this historic year.
“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” continues through December 6 at Scripps Ranch Theatre on the campus of Alliant University .
©2008 PAT LAUNER