NEWS

Heartbreak and humor in 'Ballyhoo'

Margaret Smith

‘Last Night of Ballyhoo,’  by Alfred Uhry. Directed by David Warnock.  Continues Friday, June 20, at 8 p.m., Saturday, June 21, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday, June 22 at 4 p.m. at AFD Theatre, 22 Academy St., Arlington. Tickets $18. For tickets or more information, call 781-646-5922 or visit www.afdtheatre.org.

In a well-appointed living room in the Freitag household, on a winter’s evening in Atlanta in 1939, two widowed sisters, Boo Levy (Linda Burtt) and Reba Freitag (Anne Damon) chat with Boo’s spirited, 22-year-old daughter, Lala (Brigid Battell.)

A Christmas tree decked with warmly glowing lights sits in the window for passersby to admire.

Lala is in a dither about the premiere of “Gone with the Wind” and about her first novel – or at least the first sentence she has managed to write.

But in this agreeable setting, tensions quickly surface, underscored by the fact that the family, the Christmas tree notwithstanding, is Jewish, and working to suppress any outward semblance of their beliefs.

For Boo, the holidays are particularly hard, as a shindig known as Ballyhoo – a great social affair for all the community’s Jewish families – holds out one last hope that Lala, a college dropout, might at least find a suitable marriage prospect and embrace adulthood.

Lala resents her mother’s efforts to orchestrate her life, as she resents her practically perfect cousin, Sunny Freitag, (Jaime Freedman,) a Wellesley sociology major who is poised, blond and adored by everyone.

Caught in the fray are the de facto patriarch, Boo’s and Reba’s amiable brother, Adolph (Glenn Ryan,) who runs the family business, and his newly hired assistant, Joe Farkas (Jason Fenton,) a handsome, easygoing youth from New York who is confident in his Jewish identity.

He gets a rude awakening when clownish but well-born Peachy Weil (Nick Zendzian,) lets him know in no uncertain terms that here, in the pre-World War II south, all Jews are second class, but a Jew of Eastern European heritage such as Joe, is in turn a rung below Jews of German heritage -- like the Weils and the Freitags.

It falls to Ballyhoo – an event often joked about, but never missed – to bind all these characters together, or force them apart.

Sidestepping heavy-handed commentaries on ethnicity, religion and class in favor of a subtle and humane approach, “Last Night of Ballyhoo,” by Alfred Uhry, author of “Driving Miss Daisy,” is touching and often hilarious.

AFD Theatre’s production of the play – its final offering for the theater’s 2007-2008 season --  is filled with period atmosphere and authenticity, in which any vestige of the late 21st century slips away to make room for a time period and place Uhry helped bring to the fore of American consciousness.

It’s a break from present times well worth taking, for a journey to an era that deserves to be remembered.

AFD Theater’s 2008-2009 season begins in October with “Inherit the Wind.” Auditions are set for August. For more information, call 781-646-5922 or visit www.afdtheatre.org.

Margaret Smith is Arts and Calendar editor for Community Newspaper Company’s northwest unit. E-mail her at msmith@cnc.com.