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'The Last Night Of Ballyhoo' Makes Us Think, Even As It Makes Us Laugh.

By Dave Irvin

APRIL 26, 1999:  IN DRIVING MISS Daisy, playwright Alfred Uhry demonstrated that the issue of discrimination could be made more poignant and piercing with humor. With The Last Night of Ballyhoo, he tackles the problem a generation earlier, adding irony to make the point even more subtle and salient. This Arizona Theatre Company season finale has laughs, but it also shows the insidiousness of "us vs. them" thinking. Within a ditsy love story we can easily relate to, Uhry steadily chips away at the very foundations of prejudice.

Set in 1939 Atlanta, Ballyhoo follows cousins Lala Levy (Elizabeth Eidenberg) and Sunny Freitag (Tina Jones) in their quest for love and happiness. Lala is an ugly-duckling prototype, still living at home after dropping out of college in her first semester. All dreams and no clue, Lala gets no further than the opening sentence for the derivative romance novel she is writing. Her alter ego is the bright and beautiful Sunny, home from college for the holidays. Although we know that World War II looms, the main concerns in this little corner of the world are the premiere of Gone With The Wind and Ballyhoo, the annual local social event.

This all-American household is rounded out by the girls' respective mothers, widows both: there's the sharp-tongued but caring Boo Levy (Jenifer Parker), and scatterbrained but insightful Reba Freitag (Judy Jean Berns). And then there's Adolph Freitag (Tom Ramirez), brother to Boo and brother-in-law to Reba. When Adolph brings home handsome business associate Joe Farkas (Joshua Hutchinson), a Yankee from New York City, the fun begins as Lala flirts with the Sunny-struck Farkas.

This would be an inconsequential TV sitcom episode, except for the real problem: underneath those Southern drawls and Brooklyn accents, everyone is Jewish. In WASP Atlanta, the family has grown so estranged from its roots that it proudly displays a Christmas tree, complete with star, and can't even remember when Passover is. In addition, the Freitag/Levy contingent is purely German. In an artful twist, Boo dislikes Joe not because he's a Yankee, but because his family hails from Eastern Europe.

Throughout, we get examples of Atlanta's German Jews discriminating against what they perceive as their lesser brethren from Poland and Russia. When WASPs ban them from the country clubs, they set up their own clubs, and in turn ban non-German Jews. Of course, as news of the war in Europe comes over the old Victrola, we know that this inane splitting of hairs will be utterly lost on the Nazis, who will murder millions indiscriminately.

It should be noted that Uhry writes from the autobiographical perspective of his own family's origins in Georgia, just as Driving Miss Daisy was patterned after his real-life grandmother. That authenticity validates the premises even more as a story he can legitimately and knowingly tell.

As Lala, Eidenberg skillfully manages to walk the line between a character we dislike and one we could hate. She is mildly amusing, but essentially harmless. When she finally finds a beau, we're happy for her. The additional irony is that her quintessential Jewish American Prince is a lazy rich scalawag with flaming red hair, Peachy Weil (Aaron Hartzler). UA student Hartzler gives a breezy jocularity to his role as a kosher carrot top whom we feel assured will successfully squander his inheritance and be an appropriate lifelong punishment for Lala.

Tina Jones and Joshua Hutchinson have real chemistry here. Their performances are so engaging they could almost carry the simple, obvious plot themselves. When you add in the depth they bring to the serious material, especially Jones' emotional scene describing her character's expulsion from a private pool as a child, Ballyhoo touches us to the core.

Berns and Parker are a nice supporting team. Berns has an acid tone and wears her anger and frustration openly throughout. She also gets opportunities for numerous wordless reactions. Parker plays blander, but gets funnier lines, and the contrast between the two is well drawn. Tom Ramirez, however, is the scene stealer here in his role as the wise male patriarch, lightly vexed by a household of women. His insightful portrayal is the glue that not only holds this stage family together, but anchors the performances of various family dynamics.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo won the 1997 Tony award for best play. Uhry gives us a masterful work, full of irony in service to his story. Lines like, "Stop worrying about Poland and start worrying about your own flesh and blood," and the Atlanta Jews' faulty memory for common Yiddish words like "klutz," play well here. ATC director Ken Ruta fulfills the play's potential with a controlled, well-staged production, complete with Americana set and the ever-reliable assistance of dialect coach Dianne J. Winslow.

The final coda, as the family reclaims its heritage in a telling ceremony under muted lighting, moved many in the audience to tears. Let's hope that Uhry continues to turn out works this profound and entertaining. There's no more effective weapon against senseless hate than what he and ATC give us here.

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