Do you recognize prejudice when you see it? Most people say they do.
But what about when bias is subtle — ingrained in tradition to the point that even members of the oppressed group don’t realize they harbor stereotypical views about others within their population?
The notion of prejudice and perception — and the myriad ways in which people trick themselves into altering the truth of a situation — is the theme behind “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” Alfred Uhry’s fascinating play running now through July 24 at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater. Though set in 1939, the play offers relevant lessons for 2016 and in this election year as tempers flare and tensions run high, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” demonstrates just how easy it can be to stay silent when it’s both convenient and polite.
Directed by Will Pomerantz, the play tells the story of the Freitags of Atlanta, a well-connected family in the city’s small, but elite Jewish community. Patriarch Adolph Freitag (John Hickok) is head of the family-owned Dixie Bedding Company. He shares the family’s upscale home on a predominately Christian street with his widowed sister, Boo Levy (Ellen Harvey), and her daughter Lala (Erin Neufer), as well as his widowed and somewhat daffy sister-in-law Reba Freitag (Dori Legg), who was married to Adolph and Boo’s late brother, and her daughter Sunny (Amanda Kristin Nichols).
It’s December and as the play opens, “Gone With the Wind” is having its world premiere downtown, Hitler has invaded Poland and Lala is decorating the family’s Christmas tree, which Boo justifies as a symbol of a secular holiday rather than one celebrating the birth of Christ.
Much of the action in the play centers around the cousins and as Lala decorates the tree she talks excitedly about the “Gone With the Wind” premiere that night. Boo is more concerned with who will be taking Lala to Ballyhoo, the formal dance held each December at the Standard Club, the all-Jewish country club to which the family belongs.
Meanwhile Sunny, a junior at Wellesley, is on the train heading home for the Christmas break. Her niece’s success is a source of tension for Boo given that Lala dropped out of the University of Michigan after just one semester when wasn’t accepted into the prestigious Jewish sorority.
At home in Atlanta, Lala is directionless and largely friendless. Quirky, awkward and full of big dreams, she lacks social standing. That’s a big problem for the manipulative and conniving Boo, who can’t understand why her daughter struggles to be accepted while everything comes so easily for her niece, Sunny.
When Adolph brings a new employee home for dinner, Joe Farkas (Ari Brand) of Brooklyn, Lala is smitten and makes a play for him. But Adolph feels Sunny is a better match for Joe, who soon asks Sunny, not Lala, to Ballyhoo. Fortunately, Lala is invited to the dance by Peachy Weil (Daniel Abeles) a smarmy and crass college student who is, nonetheless, well connected in the southern Jewish community.
That’s fine with Boo, who disdains Joe the moment she sets eyes on him. Therein lies the dilemma. The Freitags may be Jewish, but they are also Southerners and have been for generations. Descendants of German Jews, they have a social pecking order not unlike their Christian neighbors, including exclusion of fellow Jews who don’t pass their test.
The “other kind,” we soon learn, is code for those whose ancestors hail from “East of the Elbe” — the river that separates Germany from eastern Europe — including Poland which Hitler has recently invaded. Joe Farkas is the “other kind” and proud of it. He’s mystified by these southern Jews who know nothing of Passover or Yiddish and who display a Christmas tree (which he calls a “Hanukah bush”) in the living room.
They’re not hiding the fact they’re Jewish, they maintain, just trying to blend in with a society that places great emphasis on things like religion and money. But their non-interest in Judaism becomes a source of great tension between Joe and Sunny. As Hitler invades, the Freitags live in a blissful state of ignorance with no affinity nor sympathy for the Jews of Poland or anyone else in Hitler’s sites. The ultimate question is, will appearances of propriety remain or will the family have a change of heart?
Mr. Uhry’s script doesn’t offer any easy answers and the depth of the material gives audience members something to ponder. In addition, Will Pomerantz’s direction is both fluid and powerful. Top notch among the cast is Amanda Kristin Nichols who shines in the role of Sunny. Her soft, southern accent and good-hearted nature is put to the test when Joe points out the hypocrisies of her family’s adherence to Jewish pecking order. For his part, Ari Brand captures Joe’s Brooklyn spirit perfectly and offers a brash and honest counterpart to the polite conventions of southern society. As Boo Levy, Ellen Harvey is a powerhouse of control. She’s a difficult character to read and even harder to love, but her feelings of inadequacy and failure ultimately make her sympathetic. Erin Neufer’s Lala, meanwhile, is by turns manic and subdued, attesting to the manipulations of her willful mother. Dori Legg as Reba provides comic relief as Sunny’s daffy, but loveable, mother while John Hickok does admirable work as the ever-steady and calm Adolph. Kudos also goes to Daniel Abeles as Peachy Weil. The role may be small, but his Own Wilsonesque portrayal of the less than scrupulous party-boy is memorable and amusing.
Also terrific is the set design by Alexander Dodge who has created a grand southern home with a sweeping staircase worthy of Scarlett O’Hara. Particularly clever is a section of wall which turns into a locomotive and train car. Rounding out the creative team are lighting designer Mike Billings, costume designer Lindsay W. Davis and Jane Shaw, sound designer.
“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” runs through July 24 at the Bay Street Theater, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. To purchase tickets, call (631) 725-9500 or visit www.baystreet.org.