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A Voice for Themes Other Entertainers Have Left Behind

Alfred Uhry talks about his Tony-winning play

With a one-two punch worthy of the theatrical history books, writer Alfred Uhry has won his profession's triple crown.

His popular play "Driving Miss Daisy," about an aging Jewish woman and her perceptive black chauffeur, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1988, and the Hollywood version took the Academy Award for best screenplay in 1989. Now his new Broadway comedy, "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," has picked up the Tony for best play of 1997 and become a rip-roaring hit in the process.

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Taking its title from the traditional Ballyhoo celebration held each year by Southern Jewish families, "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" tells the touching, funny tale of a Georgia household in late 1939 - a complicated time when attention was divided between the premire of "Gone With the Wind" in Atlanta's finest theater, and horror at what Nazis were doing to Jews overseas.

It's against this background that the Freitag household copes with several challenges that look minor from the outside but loom large for the people caught up in them. Reba has left college in search of romance that steadily eludes her. Her cousin Sunny is falling in love with Joe, a newcomer to the area, but he's offended by bigotry within Atlanta's diverse Jewish community. Older family members want to help the younger generation but are sadly aware that they've never found all the happiness they'd hoped for in their own lives.

With its humorous yet serious-minded focus on family and religion, "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" explores important subjects overlooked by many of today's Broadway and Hollywood entertainments. They're always relevant to Mr. Uhry, who grew up during the '40s in an Atlanta home not unlike the one portrayed in his play.

"I've been interested in family as long as I can remember," he said in a recent interview not far from the Helen Hayes Theatre, where "Ballyhoo" is playing to enthusiastic crowds. "I grew up in one, and then I created my own - I have four daughters, and grandchildren now - and my mother is still with us. So it's always been part of my life. I'm very interested in the dynamics of a whole bunch of people who live together."

This interest takes in the tensions as well as the advantages of family life. "The people may not like each other very much," Uhry points out, acknowledging the stresses that can grow within a household. He is also keenly aware of frictions within the larger "family" of Jewish people, in the South and elsewhere. "Ballyhoo" depicts a good deal of anti-Semitism, most of it directed by West European Jews against their East European counterparts.

"I think prejudice is built into human nature," Uhry says. "People think, 'I might not be much, but I'm better than he is!' This particular kind [Jewish anti-Semitism] is especially insane and ridiculous, though, because you can't even tell these people apart ... the only difference between them is where their families came from." He exposes such nonsense sensitively but firmly in "Ballyhoo," getting across his message that "we always have to fight this kind of thing."

Uhry got many of his ideas for "Ballyhoo" from stories he heard as a child from his Atlanta relatives. "I've lived in New York all my adult life," he says, "but when I go writing, I go home."

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His concern with religious identity stems from a later period, however. "I was brought up pretty much an agnostic," he recalls, describing his parents as Jewish in background but largely uninterested in Jewish faith and tradition. "I didn't know what a bagel was until I went to college, and I married an Episcopalian girl. Like many people today, I lost [religion] somewhere - or I was never given it.

"But in my 50s," he continues, "I realized I was missing something in my life, and I started to really look for it. My wife has always encouraged me to find my Jewishness, too. I've been to Israel twice, and that's one of the things that got me to write this play. I realized I could really be part of the Jewish community - and I should be, because that's what I am."

Along with its exploration of religious and family matters, Uhry's new play reveals much about American morality in the late 1930s, which he finds quite different from current trends.

"I was only an infant then," he says, "but I know it was a time when people would fall in love and not sleep together. That was wonderful! I love it in the play - that two young people go through a whole range of emotion together, and they've never even kissed. That seems so powerful to me. I'm a big believer in one man and one woman, with no looking around for somebody else.... It's fun to write about people who fall in love in such an upbeat way. And it was a release for [the show's Broadway cast] to play those characters. They loved it."

This doesn't mean Uhry has a rose-colored vision of the past. "I wouldn't want to be there," he says. "I'd rather be here, with [today's technology]. But the rules were clearer then. When my [girlfriend] and I were 22 and in love, we wanted to live together, and the only way to do that was to get married. So we did.... I think things like that are pretty healthy."

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