Walt Kelly's Pogo said it all: "We have met the enemy and he is us." For The Last Night of Ballyhoo we have an "us" versus "them" division. The play is set in Atlanta in 1939. The movie Gone with the Windís premier is at hand. The book written by Margaret Mitchell is about the War Between the States, the American Civil War . . . the confrontation between the south and the north, believers and non-believers, brother vs. brother, family vs. family; the ultimate us vs. them scenario.
In Atlanta, there are not only country clubs for Jews and non-Jews, but country clubs for only particular Jews. Just like Jews of western Europe are the "us" to the Jews of eastern Europe; Jews in the southern US are the us to the Yankee Jews from the north.
The story is about Adolph Freitag (owner of the Dixie Bedding Company), his sister Boo, and sister-in-law Reba, along with nieces Lala and Sunny. They are a Jewish family so assimilated that they even have a Christmas tree in the front parlor. They argue about putting a star on top, but not about the tree. The family is looking forward to Ballyhoo, a lavish cotillion ball sponsored by their restrictive country club. Ballyhoo is THE event of the Jewish Christmas season. Southern Jews return to Atlanta from where ever they've been dispersed just for the event.
Adolph's employee Joe Farkas is an attractive eligible bachelor and an Eastern European Jew from up north, Yankee-land New York. Joe is familiar with prejudice but doesn't understand its existence within his own religious community. The play is about examining intra-ethnic bias, Jewish identity, or lack thereof, and current beliefs. This is a heavy load, but one that has been carried before by playwright Alfred Uhry. His play Driving Miss Daisy also involved Jews in the south as well as the relationship of whites vs. blacks . . . another possible "us" and "them."
Although the stage time is dominated by the women, the play seems to turn on the strongest character, Adolph (played by Russ Holm) and the character with the least amount of stage time, Peachy Weil (played by Steven Walker). Peachy doesn't enter until the second act. I wouldn't want to wait for Godot, but I didn't mind waiting for Peachy. The first of my two favorite lines came from Adolph when he sees the price of his niece Lala's Ballyhoo gown, he says, "I'll get a second job." The second is Peachy's exaggerated laugh, "Har, Har!" You just want to cringe and then it grows on you.
Peachy and Joe sitting on the couch points out the "us" and "them" as Peachy shows up in tuxedo, while Joe shows up in a sport jacket. Another "us" and "them" moment is provided in a comparison of the niecesí ball gowns. Sunny is elegant and Lala, well . . . the dress was from La-la-land. There's even "us" and "them" within families.
The first act laid the groundwork, but took a little too long to do it. They'll speed it up as the show progresses. By the end of the first act, our eleven-year old granddaughter Sophia was laying her head on Pegís shoulder. We asked her if she wanted to leave at intermission but she declared that she wanted to see how it turned out. Sophia has been to a number of plays with us before and has come to really appreciate the theater. I loved last year when Sophia, her one year older sister Bella, and her slightly younger cousin Laci, discussed the various elements of Oklahoma! after we had all seen it at Puyallup High School.
After this production, the three of us talked about the play and its meaning. I was glad we took eleven-year old Sophia to this play. She knew nothing about Gone with the Wind, Ballyhoo, Jews, the Civil War, Atlanta, the south, or the Second World War, but she understood the message as she compared how kids at school acted. She enjoyed the play and recognized the "us" and "them."
The play is billed as a comedy drama and the pay-off was the second act, shorter than the first and longer on the laughs. The play won the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Broadway Play. "Ballyhoo" runs through March 20, with 7:30 performances on Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2. Call the box office at 253-272-2281 for information and tickets. Check out their website tacomalittletheatre.com for the upcoming 98th season.