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‘Last Night of Ballyhoo’ Recalls 1939 at Summit Playhouse

Liz Keill

Monday, February 24, 2014 • 8:30am

SUMMIT, NJ – Yes, it’s 1939 and "Gone With the Wind” is having its world premiere in Atlanta, with all the major stars in attendance.

That’s big news for the upper-class extended family who are making plans for the Jewish Standard Club’s annual ball, Ballyhoo. Lala Levy (Jackie Jacobi) is pining for a chance to attend the ball… if she only had a date. Her mother, Boo, (Victoria Steele)  commiserates with sister-in-law Reba (Debbie Bernstein)  as they banter back and forth about their daughters. Steele and Bernstein neatly convey the loyal, but at times barely tolerant, shifting sands of living under the same roof.   

Hank Barre is Adolph Freitag, Boo’s brother and essentially the family patriarch. Barre brings both warmth and a little caustic wit to the role.  His niece, Sunny Freitag, (Diana Chaves) arrives home from Wellesley. It seems that Lala never made it through a semester at the University of Michigan, and is envious of her cousin’s smarts.

There are more complications when Joe Farkas enters the picture. Matthew Cronin gives just the right contrast of a young man from Brooklyn, suddenly thrust into this southern enclave. Although he also is Jewish, he is an Eastern European Jew and doesn’t quite fit in. He and Sunny are obviously attracted to each other, but clash when he senses the exclusiveness within the Jewish community.

Lala finally lands a date to the Ballyhoo ball with Peachy Weil, played by Fred Gallo. The mothers are thrilled that she’s attracted such a respectable escort from a distinguished family.   Initially, he tells her he needs to take his nine-year-old cousin to the dance, but that is somehow resolved.

Ultimately everyone is happy with the outcome as the two daughters each find a match.  The ending seems somewhat arbitrary, culminating in lighting of candles for an intimate service. (Perhaps it’s meant to be a contrast for the Christmas tree on the other side of the room.)   But there’s a mix of drama and laughs along the way as this family tries to hold onto traditions while accepting change.

The action all takes place on the verge of World War II, with occasional references to Hitler.  But these Jews, unlike so many in Europe, are safe.  

The script by Alfred Uhry has shades of “Driving Miss Daisy,” his blockbuster play and movie, also set in a southern city.

Director Sherri Ahlin has done a terrific job of assembling fine actors, with subtle southern accents. The set design by Ren Roberts creatively uses the small playhouse space, alluding to scenes at the ball and a waiting room in a train station. Judith Mulder’s costumes perfectly convey the period, and Lala’s ball gown is fetchingly reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara’s fancy dress for the barbecue at Twelve Oaks. As Adolph says, she looks just like Scarlett O’Goldberg or words to that effect.

“Last Night of Ballyhoo” has plenty to say under the surface about a restrictive society and the protective environment of this family.

Performances continue through March 9. For tickets, call 908-273-2192 or visit SummitPlayhouse.org. 

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