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Wednesday, Oct 01, 2014
Arts & Music

Jewish family immersed in Southern culture in award-winning comedy


Published:   |   Updated: September 5, 2014 at 12:49 PM

Imagine an Atlanta Jewish family so assimilated into Southern culture that they have a Christmas tree in the parlor, little memory of when and why Passover is observed, and are uncomfortable around a Jewish visitor with a Brooklyn accent.

Playwright Alfred Uhry's award-winning comedy “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” opens tonight in the Shimberg Playhouse at the Straz Center and runs through Sept. 28.

Presented by Jobsite Theater and the Tampa Jewish Community Center and Federation, “Ballyhoo” won a Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway in 1997.

“It's a very sweet, nostalgic play that is a lot of fun,” says David Jenkins, artistic director of Jobsite. “On one level, it can be viewed as a straightforward comedy with this family that is Jewish but has become immersed in Southern Christian culture.”

He says that “Ballyhoo” is also a subversive play that raises issues of faith, ethnic bias, self-loathing, and how people assimilate at any cost in a restrictive culture.

“But it never gets heavy handed; the outcome actually restores your faith in human nature,” says Jenkins.

Uhry is best known for his successful and heartwarming “Driving Miss Daisy,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as an Academy Award for the screenplay. His Tony Award for “Ballyhoo” makes him the only playwright ever to win all three awards.

“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” was commissioned for the 1996 Olympics, which were held in Atlanta. The play is set in Atlanta in 1939 just before the debut of “Gone With the Wind,” which has excited the movers and shakers in town, including the Freitag family.

Unmarried family patriarch Adolph Freitag (owner of the Dixie Bedding Company), his widowed sister Boo and widowed sister-in-law Reba, as well as his grown nieces Lala and Sunny are getting ready for Ballyhoo, a lavish cotillion ball sponsored by their restrictive Jewish country club.

One character describes Ballyhoo as “Jews in expensive clothes dancing around the country club wishing they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians.”

Meanwhile, in sharp contrast to the celebration in Atlanta, there is news that halfway around the world in Germany, Adolf Hitler is on the rise, threatening Poland.

Reba's daughter Sunny, a student at Wellesley College who considers herself an intellectual, is being courted by Joe Farkas, a young man from Brooklyn who works at the bedding company and is appalled at how out of touch the family is with its ethnic history.

Boo's loopy daughter Lala, who left college after being rejected by a sorority (but remains oblivious to her own bias), is being courted by Peachy Weil, who hails from a well-heeled Jewish family in Louisiana.

Over the course of the play these oddball characters fuss, fight, fume, sort out their differences and face some interesting realizations and resolutions.

The play is directed by actor/director and improve comic Gavin Hawk. Amy E. Gray is assistant director. The cast includes Ned Averill-Snell as Adolph; Emily Belvo as Sunny; Katie Castonguay as Lala; Suzy DeVore as Reba; Jordan Foote as Peachy Weil; Nathan Jokela as Joe Farkas and Ami Sallee as Boo Levy.

This is the second collaboration between the JCC and Jobsite; the two organizations previously partnered on the spring 2013 performance of Wendy Graf's “Behind the Gates.”

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