“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” begins with a main character, Lala, setting a star atop a Christmas tree while singing the Christmas hymn, “The First Noel”
A minor conflict ensues between members of the Freitag family in reference to the star. Some desire to keep up appearances in their Christian neighborhood, others find it unnecessary. No clear decision is reached, and the star persists.
Jewish Theatre of Bloomington’s production of “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” runs at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center from Dec. 2 to 10.
The play follows a family of upper-class German Jews in Atlanta struggling with persecution in the late 1930s. It explores the way the family deals with exclusion at the hands of others, but it also explores the prejudices they perpetuate against Eastern European Jews, or “the other,” as the family calls them.
“The play is unique in that it deals with the problem of assimilation that not only existed in this country in the '30s, but has been a continuing problem,” said Audrey Heller, producing artistic director and co-founder of Jewish Theatre of Bloomington.
Tensions arise when Sunny, a daughter in the German-Jewish family, falls in love with Joe, an Eastern European Jew, who her family considers “the other."
Lala's mother, Boo Levy, never calls Joe by his name and refuses his help in the kitchen when he offers.
Sunny and Joe struggle to overcome their ingrained prejudices and their families' silent disapproval of the relationship.
At one point, Joe examines the Christmas tree with the star on top in their living room.
“Are you people really Jewish?” he asks. “It just seems you don’t want to be.”
The tension between the social divide is unspoken, Lisa Podulka said, the actress playing Sunny.
“What really drives the show is the relationship between this guy Joe and my character Sunny and challenging the beliefs of this family,” Podulka said. “They want to act as if it’s OK, and they’re not going to say that it’s not, but it’s there.”
Characters bicker and gossip about work, other families and events in their lives. The show’s use of dialogue and characters portray a realistic family.
“The genre is portrayed by a set with trappings that show the class status of the family, and by costumes that reflect the period,” Heller said.
The theater sits in the basement of the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center and has black and brick walls that appear to be part of the building’s foundations. Shadows cast by the audience occasionally land on the actors from lights suspended three feet from their heads, and actors enter and exit the stage through the same doors the audience entered. From outside, the theater appears to be an old garage.
Podulka said the limited space makes each twinge of the eyebrow and flick of the pinky reverberate like an earthquake.
“It’s extremely intimate,” Podulka said. “It’s like the audience just happens to be sitting in the living room with the characters.”
Following the show, the production cast and crew held an open discussion regarding the show with the audience.
Heller said she hopes to open discussion about the folly of prejudice against “the other” in today’s society.
“You can put it into any context and it makes sense,” Podulka said. “A lot of these things are issues Bloomington wants to talk about because it’s relevant today.”
Look forward to watching these character's lives and comparing their struggles with prejudice to the modern day, Podulka said.
“Come prepared to think, and to enjoy the intellectual energy on stage,” Podulka said. “Just because it’s from the era of Hitler doesn’t mean it’s not fresh and relevant. This show will be a lens through which the community can experience that.”
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