Friday, January 14, 2011

BELLES and BALLYHOO By Beverly Creasey

Alfred Uhry is having a banner year. The Broadway revival of DRIVING MISS DAISY with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones has just been extended, yet most people aren’t familiar with his other play about Southern injustice. THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO (at the Wellesley Summer Theatre through January 30th) explores anti-Semitism in the “genteel” South right before the outbreak of WWII.

Well to do Southern Jewish families tried their best to assimilate, embracing all the trappings of the Christian “good life,” from exclusive country club and Junior League memberships to a beautifully adorned Christmas tree in the front window. Uhry shows us what was lost in the translation.

For the Freitag family of Atlanta, Ballyhoo is the social event of the season, an all out, exclusive, formal cotillion to which Russian Jews are not invited. The Freitags see this form of prejudice as acceptable, as if it enhances their standing with their Christian neighbors. Uhry reveals their self-hatred by introducing a handsome New Yorker into the mix, a young man comfortable in his own skin. Lewis Wheeler plays the principled Yank with a charming swagger. His scenes courting Ashley Gramolini (as the daughter home from college) are delightful. The young lovers (to be) are awkward, sweetly funny and of course destined for one another.

Back at home, the Wellesley (!) student’s cousin (Margaret Dunn) laments her prospects for a date to Ballyhoo, not to mention her long range prospects, something forever on her scheming mother’s brain. Lisa Foley wages a one-woman war on the subject, adding to her fragile daughter’s insecurities. (THE GLASS MENAGERIE comes to mind.) In one of Uhry’s best scenes, Foley leaps out of the stereotype and fights for her cub like a lioness, redeeming the character of the mother.

Charlotte Peed provides comedic flair as the college girl’s ditsy mother and Danny Bolton gets to whip up a whirlwind as the eligible, loudmouthed Louisiana bachelor. The play belongs to John Davin as the longsuffering uncle. With his quip that “Men don’t stand a good chance around here,” he speaks volumes about his role as family provider, his chances for a life apart from his sisters and their girls and his wry sense of humor. As the play progresses we learn about his lost love, his unexpected role as stand-in father and his iron strong backbone. Director Nora Hussey’s company breathes gentle life into Uhry’s bittersweet comedy.