Photo by Henri Dirocco/SCRA funny thing happened on the way to World War II. People lived; people got drunk; people went to the movies; people were—as people usually are—petty, vain, lonely and horny.
That's not the notion one gets from the reigning story of the period right before World War II. The last decade or so of star-spangled revisionism has cast a noble, courageous sheen over all Americans of the time. Every red-blooded American female was a Rosie the Riveter in training, eagerly awaiting the chance to assemble the planes and bombs that would liberate Europe from Hitler's fascism. Every red-blooded American male was an Audie Murphy, a flesh-and-blood manifestation of all that was wholesome and right about Democracy.
Except for the Americans in The Last Night of Ballyhoo.Alfred Uhry's Tony Award-winning comedy is receiving a most gussied-up and ultra-spiffy production courtesy of South Coast Repertory. It's December 1939. Hitler's panzers are mowing through Poland's horse cavalry like, well, steel through flesh, and the rest of Europe shudders in the Third Reich's shadow.
But in Atlanta, most folks are far more interested in Gone With the Windthan in reading news from the frontlines of Europe's war. Lala (Blair Sams), the sassy and saucy young woman who is a continual disappointment to her overbearing and overwrought mother (Kandis Chappell), says the film's opening is the most important event in the history of Atlanta; apparently, Sherman's pillaging of the city some 75 years before doesn't quite make the grade.
Along with the ballyhoo around Scarlett and Rhett, there's another Ballyhoo creating a hullabaloo. The Ballyhoo is a formal ball for Atlanta's Jewish socialites, but, as one character remarks, it's really a chance for self-hating Jews to get together, rub shoulders and wish they were Episcopalian.
Like all the middle-class Jewish families of Atlanta's social set, the Freitag family is most concerned about the upcoming Ballyhoo and getting dates (i.e., future husbands) for their two young females: the sharp-tongued college drop-out Lala, and the over-achieving, Wellesley-educated Sunny (Debra Funkhouser).
Though Uhry's play doesn't delve too deep, there's no ignoring the broader context. Echoes of the war in Europe spill over into conversations, most notably in the dialogue of Joe, a New York City Jew whose family's roots are planted in soil "east of the Elbe." That's the Atlanta Reform Jews' way of saying he's a non-German Jew.
The introduction of Joe (a very believable and earnest Nathan Baesel) into the Freitag circle also gives Uhry a chance to probe another issue: Jewish self-hatred. The Freitag family is prosperous and respected in the community but it's never allowed to forget its ethnicity. Jim Crow reserved his most virulent racism for black-skinned Southerners, but the Jews weren't exactly riding at the front of the bus. Too busy controlling the banks.
Rather than bristle and fume, however, the Freitags are quite content to bury their Jewish roots, whether by hanging a star on their Christmas tree, or by looking down on those kikes who give Jews a bad name by actually embracing Judaism.
It's hard not to like this affectionate and finely crafted look at a family that just wants to be accepted. Warner Shook's carefully measured, fast-paced direction combines with a cast of SCR stalwarts, including Richard Doyle and Linda Gehringer, to deliver a very compelling, eminently likeable play.
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But the play almost runs from horror. Love conquers all; all loose ends will eventually be tied up in pretty bows; and people in love truly can work through their problems and communicate on a rational, mature level. These are three of the lies that Uhry, through his well-crafted play, makes us want to believe.
Despite that, there's no denying the terrible poignancy that reverberates—however unintentionally—through the play's final image. A family of Jews, none of them enthusiastic about their Jewishness, stands around a dinner table. The men wear yarmulkes. Two candles are on the table. The men and women take turns blessing, in Hebrew, the union of two young souls.
Meanwhile, half a world away, the largest social engineering experiment in history is under way, and 6 million dead Jews will soon give eternal testament to the horrifying depths to which our species can sink. But none of that intrudes on Uhry's play, or the characters in it. And, ultimately, that may be his point. Poised on the edge of a nightmare, this family recognizes the power of embracing its own myth, its own heritage. In a world that can go horribly wrong, where entire races can be wiped out and where, on a more personal level, our harshest cruelties are, for some inexplicable reason, levied against those closest to us, this family has awakened to the daily blessings that somehow make it all worth bearing.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Thru oct. 5. $19-$55.