Little Things Mean A Lot

Feb 17, 1999 at 4:00 am

By Alfred Uhry
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

In Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy, race-based class distinctions carry a history, however veiled, of violence and oppression. In the playwright's The Last Night of Ballyhoo, a bloodless class prejudice is easily incorporated into a lighthearted romance, a fleeting souffle featuring two pairs of young lovers -- one serious, one comic -- along with an older generation that alternately aids and opposes the course of true love.

Uhry's play takes place in the imposing home of an extended family of prosperous Atlanta Jews -- bachelor business owner Adolph Freitag; his widowed sister Boo Levy and her daughter Lala; Reba Freitag, the widow of Adolph and Boo's older brother; and her daughter Sunny. In Rob Odorisio's set at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the living room reaches up two stories, with a grand spiral staircase rising through it and frilly but Southern-tasteful flowered wallpaper wrapping the whole. In their familiarity with other such families all over the South and in their knowledge of which cousin married whose sister and just where such a union places them in the social hierarchy, these people are very Southern. In this December of 1939, young Lala Levy's two obsessions are the premiere in downtown Atlanta of Gone with the Wind and a date for the Ballyhoo ball that caps the holiday social season. As Mandy Fox plays Lala, ditzily enthusiastic, weepily retreating or flutteringly Southern-belle-ringing, you can see why her mother, Boo, worries about her marriage prospects. Darrie Lawrence's Boo issues tightlipped commands to her recalcitrant daughter, then picks up the phone to lobby far-flung old acquaintances in her campaign to scare up a date for her daughter. Boo is a sister to another desperate Southern mother, Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie. But Uhry's play is a comedy, so Lala goes to the ball with a beau with the right bloodlines, a boy from a proper old Louisiana family, played by Jordan Matter with extravagantly energetic young-pup playfulness. Costume designer James Scott, who elsewhere restrains himself with tasteful 1930s outfits, sends Lala off to the ball in a straight-from-Tara hoopskirt that Fox, Lawrence and director Susan Gregg exploit for one of the production's several good bits of physical comedy.

Southern as they are, the Freitags and Levys remain Jewish in a society whose highest rungs are forever occupied by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Sometimes the results are comic, as when Boo and Lala fuss about which ornaments are appropriate for a Jewish Christmas tree. Sometimes they're painful. Lala envies her cousin Sunny, who with her light-brown, shoulder-length, straight hair, perfect features and Wellesley-student sweater-and-skirt outfits, could be Miss WASP of 1939. Michelle Six looks the part and brings a lovely sense of balance to the role. Sunny vaguely remembers having once gone to a seder at someone's house. But she remembers vividly that she was made to leave a sixth-grade friend's swimming party because Jews were not allowed in the pool at her friend's exclusive club. Unsettled in her assimilated identity, Sunny responds warmly to Joe Farkas, a young man from Brooklyn newly hired in her uncle's business. Played at the Rep by Aaron Serotsky, who with his curly hair brushed back from a prominent widow's peak looks like George Gershwin, Joe is a charmer and, having grown up in a Jewish neighborhood, is very secure in his Jewishness. But to Boo, he's "the wrong kind" -- an Eastern European Jew, not the equal of her own German-Jewish kind. It's a small thing, almost invisible to outsiders, but it means a lot in this tight little world, and it almost destroys the budding romance between Sunny and Joe. With wise encouragement from Uncle Adolph, played with warmth and perfect pacing by Robert Elliott, they patch things up -- this is, after all, a romantic comedy, not a problem play. And Sunny's mother, played by Sherry Skinker with deadpan Gracie Allen logic, contentedly finishes her knitting.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo concludes with a piece of wish-fulfillment that leaps to the end of a journey the characters have not taken. But the play provides a pleasant evening of light entertainment along the way.

-- Bob Wilcox

By Susan Sontag
Washington University Performing Arts Department

An epidemic of a now seldom-seen psychiatric disorder, hysteria, swept over Western European and American upper-middle-class women. Its major symptom was some sort of debilitation -- blindness, for instance, or paralysis -- with no organic cause. Sigmund Freud made his name (and a great many of his basic assumptions) treating this sad condition.

If Susan Sontag is to be believed (and I'd as lief believe Sontag as anyone), Alice James, the little and only sister of Henry and William James, fell victim to a hysterical and isolating paralysis that left her unable to walk or even to leave her London room -- "a career invalid," as the playwright's note puts it.

Sontag's short but elaborate play Alice in Bed gives us an hour of psychological realism mixed with head-tripping intellectual fantasy. In one scene, for instance, Alice gives a tea party for a shy, eager-to-please Emily Dickinson; an aggressive (well, maybe just assertive) Margaret Fuller; strange, cataleptic Kundry of the Parsifal legend; and Myrtha, the leader of the Wilis, the vengeful spirits of young women who died for love in the ballet Giselle. In another, more realistic moment, a very young Alice tries to explain her sense of uselessness to her high-minded, self-absorbed father, who comforts her by giving his reluctant permission for suicide, cautioning her, however, to cause as little mess as she can. The most difficult part of the play is a soliloquy the crippled Alice gives on an imagined visit and walkabout in Rome. Though terribly sad, it is also so densely textured that it really requires an encore -- or even a read -- for full comprehension.

Washington University's most entertaining production of Alice in Bed is nicely acted, handsomely designed and skillfully directed. Leah Frattalone, in the strenuous and demanding role of Alice, makes her interesting, lovable, pitiful and occasionally frustrating. Andrew Richards does that wonderful actor's trick of pulling Henry James Sr. out of a hat apparently fully developed and three-dimensional. Bill Whitney's Henry James is a fussy, sometimes loving, rather effeminate fellow, not nearly as dignified as the Master would have preferred to seem. Stephen Sislen stepped in at the last moment to turn in an excellent performance as a young cat burglar who has the bad luck to enter Alice's room.

Andrea Urice has directed Alice in Bed with a discriminating eye for the dramatic possibilities of a play that could easily become dull literary trivia in less skilled hands. Her casting shows the crucial ability to assign roles to student actors in which they can excel, and her motivational skills got them to do just that. Bonnie Kruger's costume design is imaginative and fun -- as it almost always is; so is Leland Orvis' set. Undergraduates Jaclyn Pryor and Peter Gilchrist supply stimulating, imaginative sound and lighting, respectively.

-- Harry Weber

By Edward Albee
West End Players Guild

Director Amy Allen and scenic artist Luke Cano shrewdly chose shades of gray for their set for the West End Players Guild production of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. Placed in the quite ordinary living room of retired businessman Tobias and his wife, Agnes, in a wealthy New York suburb, the play soon floats to a surreal plane on its lengthy, convoluted soliloquies and on the sudden appearance of Tobias and Agnes' friends Edna and Harry, who have been driven from their home by a nameless fear. Albee's work shudders with the angst and anomie that fill much midcentury literature, drama and film.

An acquaintance who acted under Albee's direction in one of his plays reported that during rehearsals the playwright paced the back of the theater, rarely glancing at the stage. He cared most about how the play sounded. Especially in A Delicate Balance, the music of the words makes the play flow. Agnes' alcoholic sister Claire gets the occasional line that sparkles with the brilliant wit Albee laces throughout Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Eleanor Mullin handles those lines with exactness and verve. Patty Junge, as daughter Julia, drives dramatic moments with blunt directness. The burden of Albee's language falls on the Agnes and Tobias of Dorothy Davis and Barry Hyatt. It demands absolute and precise command of the lines. When they have that command, Davis and Hyatt show a true ear for Albee's music. When they lack it, as happened sometimes last weekend, the work goes flat.

-- Bob Wilcox