Southern-set comedy kicks off WBU theatre season

September 23, 2010

PLAINVIEW – Mention Adolph Hitler invading Poland in 1939 along with the film premiere of the Southern classic Gone With the Wind and it might seem like The Last Night of Ballyhoo is a serious, reflective piece.

But Wayland Baptist University theatre director Dr. Marti Runnels assures audiences that the play is funnier and much more light-hearted than the nutshell synopsis might let on.

“The play is really not that serious. It’s about a Jewish family that, as the line in the play says, ‘wishes they could kiss their elbows and become Episcopalian,’” he said. And while those more pivotal, historic moments are happening overseas and there in 1939 Atlanta, the family is much more concerned with Ballyhoo, the social event of the season and a true status symbol for affluent southern folk.

Runnels said the play deals heavily with two older Jewish women, consumed with getting dates for their daughters to the Ballyhoo dance. But not just any date will do. The event is such a big deal in the girls’ social circles that who they bring is just as important as going. Of no less importance is what the girls wear to this big dance. This, of course, is the recipe for social drama and hilarity.

An underlying theme to the play is the universal issue of dealing with one’s own heritage and the baggage that comes with it, whether affluent or poor, Jew or Gentile, black or white. Runnels said playwright Alfred Uhry experienced much of the same issues as a southern Jewish boy not proud of that heritage and the way it set him apart from his peers. Uhry’s grappling with his faith identity resulted in a stronger appreciation in adulthood, and Runnels said that is something to which all audience members can relate.

“Almost everyone who comes to see this play will have had something about them that they wished they could make go away, but then looking back as an adult you are glad you didn’t,” he said. “The play deals a lot with feelings from childhood and fitting in and how things change your outlook on life.”

Runnels said the comedic moments in the play are classic, and Uhry crafts the story well, even wrapping it up in ways that may surprise many theatre patrons. Perhaps that is why Uhry earned the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play for the piece, revered almost as much as his play-turned-movie Driving Miss Daisy, which incidentally deals with similar issues of status and barriers.

From the university standpoint, Runnels said his student actors face challenges with the Southern accent, which he said is quite different from the Texas accent many of them possess.

“It’s much easier for many students to do a British accent than a Southern accent,” he notes. Add to that one character from New York who must keep from infusing the Georgia lilt into his Yankee dialect and you have quite a learning experience. But that, he said, is the point of the university theatre: to give students stage experience in a variety of settings and genres.

Junior John Lennon, a theatre major from Muleshoe, plays the role of Adolph Freitag, the lone male in a household of women caught up in the Ballyhoo drama. Junior theatre major Lesley Gatlin of Graham plays Reba Freitag, and Corinna Browning, a junior major from Channing, plays Sunny Freitag. Senior major Sarah Buckland of Weatherford fills the role of Boo Levy, and senior major Jake Miser of Leila Lake plays Peachy Weil.

Rounding out the cast are WBU theatre newcomers Breanna Price, a freshman religion major and theatre minor from Hale Center, in the role of Lala Levy. Freshman Coleman Scroggins of Tulia will take his first role on the Wayland stage as Joe Farkas.

Senior Rachel Morrison is stage manager, with Kristi Morris Young on lights and David Huckabee on sound. Set design is by Steven Wood, technical theatre director.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo will be performed at 8 p.m. on Sept. 30, Oct. 1 and Oct. 2 and in a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Oct. 3, all in the Harral Studio Theatre. Tickets are $8 for adults and $4 for students.

To make reservations, call the School of Fine Arts at 291-1060