The Herald-Times Review:
Jewish Theatre of Bloomington helps us see why we do what we do
They say you can tell how depressed someone is by how you feel after spending time with that person. The Jewish Theatre of Bloomington’s “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” is not depressed.
It’s been a while since I left the theater feeling uplifted and hopeful and not spending the next day worrying about messages from haunting and unsettling plots. It’s good to be jostled into concern (and action), but it’s also good to exit the stage door smiling and serene. I probably should be examining “Ballyhoo’s” main themes: assimilation, snobbery, exclusion, denial (Hitler just invaded Poland, and the Levy family’s focus is ball gowns, pecan cakes and chicken, how to decorate their — yes — Jewish Christmas tree, and the opening of “Gone with the Wind.”
But during the two hours of Alfred Uhry’s delightful play, I simply fell too much in love with this family and their friends to judge their seeming indifference to Hitler. (“Boo, don’t worry about Poland,” Uncle Adolph advises his sister.)
Uhry grew up in a German Jewish family in the southern U.S., playing on the floor with his trucks as he surreptitiously took in all the family gossip. Maybe there, he learned of people “with ugly red hair,” drinking coffee giving one gas, higher education leading to insanity, and the “other” kinds of people trying to fit in.
And this is a play about how we all want to fit in.
It addresses our prejudices even, maybe especially, within our own religious and ethnic sects. Lala Levy, the off-center, spunky, determined niece of patriarch Adolph Freitag, mocks her mother’s snobbish reverence for the Weils — “the finest family in the South.” Her WASP-looking, yet Jewish, cousin and Wellesley junior Sunny Freitag cries, “All we wanted was to be like everybody else.” The family’s Christmas tree, the set’s focal point, exists to help them seem less Jewish in 1930s Atlanta. And when the maid quits, Lala’s mother is less worried about who will clean than about the maid’s “telling stories about us.”
Director Dale McFadden knows how to cast. Every single character in this seven-actor production enchants. We see seven distinctly different personalities, each portrayed without the distractions of over- or under-acting.
Sarah Leaffer as Lala is precious. I’ve seen Lala played as super goofy and annoying, but not here. Leaffer’s facial expressions and body language — to say nothing of her fabulous Scarlett O’Hara ball gown for the Ballyhoo cotillion — almost steal the show. And they would, were it not for her endowed colleagues.
Lisa Podulka, who was so good in this fall’s “Peter and the Star Catcher,” gives us another riveting character, here, as Lala’s prettier, blonde, blue-eyed cousin. She may snag Lala’s man-of-the-moment, but, kind and intelligent, she never gloats. Sunny and Lala’s heart-tugging argument about cousin rivalry is one of this production’s best scenes.
As father figure Adolph Freitag and head of this “well-padded in the monetary sense” German Jewish family, Adam Crowe is a patient, forgiving and forbearing uncle to the girls. What a sonorous voice he has, too: perfect for theater. Gail Bray is Lala’s mother, Boo, and I mean she IS Boo. Was Bray born for this part? Julie Dixon charmed me as Boo’s sister-in-law and humble, sweet, unsophisticated mother of Sunny, who is becoming more sophisticated with each Wellesley semester. As the “other” type of Jew, with Eastern European blood, Felix Merback’s Joe Farkas, good-guy and suitor, brought tears. Devin May, as a son of that “finest family in the South,” gives us a devilishly good, immature Peachy Weil. Of the roles I’ve seen May do, this is my favorite.
So, I left the Rose Firebay and thought ruefully of my relatives looking askance on Christian denominations “other” than ours, my father, after my mother died, refusing to date an acquaintance because she was a member of the “other” political party, and my grandmother’s wariness of a neighbor of an “other” ethnicity. And I thought, “Thank goodness for plays like ‘The Last Night of Ballyhoo.’ They explain us to us.”
Adolph Freatitag.......Adam Crowe
Boo Levy......................Gail Bray
Reba Freitag...............Julie Dixon
Lala Levy.....................Sarah Leaffer
Sunny Freitag.............Lisa Podulka
Joe Farkas...................Felix Merback
Peachy Weil.................Devin May
Adolph and Joe react to news
Lala and Peachy in a moment
Sunny and Reba
Sunny lighting Sabbath candles