Back in the day, Southern Jewish families weren’t quite like Jewish families in the rest of the country —at least, that’s what playwright Alfred Uhry suggests in two of his most enduring works.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 play Driving Miss Daisy and his 1997 Tony-winning The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Uhry offers up characters who are more like their Christian neighbors in Atlanta. In the case of Ballyhoo, they celebrate Christmas and all sorts of Southern traditions. More disturbingly, they cling to entrenched prejudices against “other” Jews — Eastern Europeans and Russians who don’t share their German heritage — even as Adolph Hitler’s Nazis are rampaging in 1939.
Newly opened at the Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs, The Last Night of Ballyhoo is, to be sure, a different kind of holiday show. As staged by director Hugh M. Murphy and performed by a fine cast, the play is funny, insightful, unsettling and ultimately redemptive. It’s visually evocative of its period too, thanks in large part to Peter Lovello’s stylish costumes.
Set in December 1939, as Gone With the Wind is about to have its Hollywood-style premiere in Atlanta, The Last Night of Ballyhoo explores the lives of an extended Jewish family living under the same roof in an upscale, largely Christian neighborhood.
Adolph Freitag (Larry Kent Bramble), the bachelor brother, heads the Dixie Bedding Company, the firm that has always provided a comfortable life for him and his siblings. His older sister, Boo Levy (Miki Edelman), is a cranky widow whose main goal in life is to marry off her flighty daughter, Lala (Greyssan Felipe, who is miked far louder than anyone else in the cast, to her detriment). Reba Freitag (Janet Weakley), the cheerful widow of Adolph and Boo’s late brother, is the proud mom to Sunny (Mary Sansone), a brainy sociology major at Wellesley College.
An eccentric and overly sensitive University of Michigan dropout, Lala has become obsessed with seeing the stars at the Gone With the Wind premiere and finding an escort to her restrictive country club’s annual Ballyhoo festivities, social gatherings capped by a formal dance.
Always jealous of the serious Sunny, she turns green when her uncle’s new hire, Brooklyn-born Joe Farkas (Alex Salup), falls for her cousin and asks Sunny to Ballyhoo. But at the 11th hour, fortune smiles on Lala when braying jokester Peachy Weil (Stephen Kaiser) arrives from Louisiana to make her Ballyhoo dreams — and more —come true.
Uhry artfully blends family comedy and ongoing tensions with his more serious exploration of religious pride and prejudice. Salup’s aghast Joe holds a mirror up to Sansone’s Sunny, a smart and decent young woman who has nonetheless internalized her family’s biases and knows pitifully little about her faith’s rich traditions.
As the brash, outspoken Joe and the gently defensive Sunny, Salup and Sansone impressively anchor the production. Uhry supplies an unnecessary (perhaps imagined) religious coda, but the two actors supply all the resolution The Last Night of Ballyhoo needs.