A relative youngster among metro theater companies, Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre has opened its 10th season with Alfred Uhry’s leaden “The Last Night of Ballyhoo.” The play is an odd choice for a season opener, because it’s not the rip-roaring start that one would like to see. CityRep isn’t exactly breaking new ground.
Uhry sets “Ballyhoo” in the same upper-middle-class Jewish society of Atlanta as his “Driving Miss Daisy,” but a generation earlier, in December 1939, when “Gone with the Wind” is having its city premiere.
Bachelor Adolph Freitag (Donald Jordan) supports his sister-in-law, Reba (Wendy Welch); her daughter, Sunny (Meghan Wagner); his sister, Boo (Jeanie Cooper); and her daughter, Lala (Augusta Abene). The Freitags are the type of Southern Jews whose household has a small Christmas tree during the holidays, although the current addition of a star on top elicits a mild controversy. The fine scenic design, right down to the floral wallpaper, is by Debra E. Hicks.
In this social group, everyone knows everybody else’s business through the “Southern Jewish grapevine,” and Ballyhoo is the social event of the year for them, taking place in Atlanta around Christmastime.
The problem with “Ballyhoo” is that Uhry isn’t clear about his subject matter. Thus, it doesn’t seem to be about anything, unless it’s whether Lala and Sunny get dates to Ballyhoo, which is pretty thin soup for a fulllength play. The script touches on tension in blended families, dips a toe into what it means to be Jewish in the American South, glances off unrequited love, and hints at trouble brewing in Europe, any one of which could be the subject.
With Georgia accents that are as thick as molasses, the cast does what it can with the script. CityRep is producing “Ballyhoo” in partnership with Oklahoma City University’s TheatreOCU, so Abene and Wagner are the college students they play, and both give credible, satisfying performances. Cooper waves her hands around like she’s conducting an orchestra, and Welch is appropriately dotty.
Aaron Wertheim plays a Brooklyn Jew who has moved south and has trouble understanding why the Southern Jews do not embrace their Jewishness, the most natural thing in the world to him.
Dillon Horner is Peachy Weil. He’s supposed to have “ugly” red hair, but the light has to strike Horner just right for you to see a faint, reddish tint in his dark-auburn locks. Why director Matthew Gray doesn’t make Peachy a vivid carrot-top is a mystery.
But why CityRep is staging this work is also a mystery.