by Patrick B. McGuigan
The Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre has lauched its tenth season in style. In the intimate basement setting of City Space (the Civic Center basement), the strong cast of seven performers bring to life “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” Alfred Uhry’s award-winning comedy.
Lala Levy (Augusta Abene), so overwrought with memories of one week away from home years ago that she remains trapped in a dreamworld, is obsessed with whether or not she will have a date to “Ballyhoo,” the grandest social event of the year for the Jews of Atlanta (Georgia). There is tension between her and cousin Sunny Freitag (Meghan Wagner). Pretty, naturally curious and at the dawn of a successful venture into academia, Sunny doesn’t care if she goes to Ballyhoo, while Lala can think of little else.
Lala’s mother is Eula “Boo” Levy – well aware her ethnic roots leave her outside the confines of Atlanta’s Gentile elite – seems comfortable in maintenance of a non-observant (in faith) community which has through generations established its own social hierarchy. Boo’s sister-in-law is Reba Freitag, Sunny’s mother who lives with an ever-hopeful disposition and a ditzy willingness to avoid the obvious.
Patriarch of this clan is Adolph Freitag (Donald Jordan, a co-founder of CityRep), who presides benevolently over the dysfunctionality that marks the lives of sister Boo, his sister-in-law Reba and their sparring daughters.
With feigned indifference to bigotry but obvious skill in business, Adolph has blended into Atlanta, making his fortune in an environment laced with genteel anti-Semitism. In the end, however, he is the one who sets in place events that leads the family to reach through the fog of memory to find the dignity and richness of an almost-forgotten faith.
Adolph’s new employee, Joe Farkas (Aaron Wertheim) enters the picture with Mr. Feitag’s blessing, and is soon the center of controversy as his comfortable assertion of Jewish identity puts nearly everyone on edge. He is casually disdainful of the obsession with Ballyhoo he sees in Boo and Lala, and refuses to join enthusiasm for the world premiere of the film, “Gone With the Wind.”
The historic setting of the story, late 1939, provides a framework for the dawning awareness of the characters that a deep evil in the heart of Germany, Hitler’s Nazis, is about to shake the entire world to its core. Sylvan “Peachy” Weil is an elite-conscious non-religious man whose dismissiveness about events in Europe provide ironic framework to the story.
In the end, this is a quite entertaining and often laugh-out-loud production that makes a point deftly. There is a “happy ending” for most characters, but within that setting of a world where the Holocaust happened.
In this joint production with Theatre OCU, CityRep director Matthew Gray makes nice use of period props (including reproductions of headlines from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) to give authenticity to the accelerating reality of the narrative.
Take a few minutes before or (preferably) after the performance to linger outside the theater entrance to study photographs and information about Jewish life in the old South, and the intra-Jewish tensions that the story bring to life both humorously and poignantly.
The show continues this weekend and next, as follows: Friday, September 23, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, September 24, 1:30 p.m. (matinee) and 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 25 1:30 p.m. (matinee); then on Friday, September 30, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, October 1, at 1:30 p.m. (matinee) and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, October 2, 1:30 p.m. (Matinee). Tickets are $8 (Student Rush Tickets and Military Personnel with Military ID), $20 (groups of eight or more), $30 (matinees) and $35 (evening performances), and may be purchased by calling the Civic Center Music Hall Box Office at 1.800.364.7111 or 405.297.2264. Tickets may be purchased online through the CityRep website at www.cityrep.com, or through the Civic Center Music Hall Box Office website at www.okcciviccenter.org.
American playwright Thornton Wilder is one of Don Jordan’s favorite authors. Wilder once wrote, “I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” entertains, amuses and slowly works its way to the heart, and into memory, gently making Uhry’s point about “what it is to be a human being.”