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Ballyhoo's Strong Script Overcomes Uneven Acting

Kelly Snyder reviews a TheatreWorks performance of Alfred Uhry's Last Night of Ballyhoo.

Alfred Uhry's Last Night of Ballyhoo, produced by San Francisco's TheatreWorks, offers a glimpse into a world little know to many, but one with which many can empathize. His intelligent, well-presented drama about belonging, exclusion, self-acceptance and ownership of one's heritage never gets too heavy-handed - and while the subject is treated with serious respect, he never takes himself too seriously. Thus, Last Night of Ballyhoo delivers a thoughtful and entertaining evening of theatre and its critical acclaim is well earned.

Uhry sets his play in Atlanta, Georgia in December of 1939. He works the premiere of Gone With the Wind into his story, but the focus is on a Jewish family all living together with unresolved issues. The soft-spoken head of the house is Adolph Freitag (David Silberman), unmarried and in charge of the family business. Living with him are his sister, Beulah (Sheila O'Neill Ellis) (referred to as Boo throughout), her daughter Lala (Tanya Shaffer) and his sister-in-law, Reba (Nancy Madden), whose daughter, Sunny (Jessa Brie Berkner), is on her way home from college for the holidays.

In Atlanta in 1939, the upper echelons of society were open only to the wealthy, white and Protestant. The Jewish community, which included many German Jews who had lived in the area for generations, created its own parallel social structure and included an extensive weekend of partying during the Christmas holiday season, climaxing with Ballyhoo, a lavish formal dance.

For the dreamy Lala, the most important thing is to be invited to attend Ballyhoo and when her uncle Adolph brings home a charming young employee, Joe Farkas (Brian Herndon), Lala thinks her worries are over. Complications arise when Sunny arrives and Joe's attentions shift. Add in Lala's domineering mother, determined that her daughter will have an eligible date for Ballyhoo, and Uhry's stage is set for an exploration of what it means to feel excluded, to pretend to be someone else and to confront one's inner fears.

Uhry never overplays his hand and sprinkles a generous amount of humor on top of the serious underlying themes. His characters are distinct, flesh-and-blood creations and the situations generally feel organic.

Under Amy Gonzales's direction, TheatreWorks production sails along, relying confidently on the script, the audience's intelligence and the cast's abilities. For the most part, her trust is well merited, but there seemed to be two distinct acting styles that failed to work together on opening night.

Most of the cast approached their respective roles with a low-key, naturalistic approach that matched Uhry's script and let the work speak for itself. Silberman's gentle, resigned Adolph, Berkner's demure, sweet-spoken Sunny and Herndon's forthright, courteous and sometimes hapless Joe exemplified this style - and each brought something special to his/her role.

On the other hand, O'Neill Ellis's strident, bitter and overly loud Boo, Shaffer's ditzy, insecure Lala and Noel Wood's Peachy Weil (Lala's last hope for a Ballyhoo date), all approached their roles in a style more appropriate for the Carol Burnett Show.

The actors' jarring approaches to the roles made for an uneasy balance of elements in this production, but for the most part, the strong, intelligent script and Gonzales' no-nonsense approach kept the production on track. Additional assets were the evocative set by Eric Sinkkonen, Clare Henkel's period costumes and Christopher Guptill's subtle, moody lighting.

In the end, the less successful elements of the production faded as minor distractions and one was left with Uhry's thoughtful exploration of what it means to belong, to be excluded, and to claim one's own heritage.

Kelly Snyder is a freelance reviewer of opera and theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also works as the Assistant Manager of Estate Services at Stanford University's Office of Development. Kelly also writes for San Francisco Frontlines, San Jose Living, and Le Concertographe. Occasionally, he performs Gilbert & Sullivan roles with the Lyric Theatre in San Jose. Visit West Bay Opera to learn more about schedules and performances.

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