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Director picks the play, but how?

By Linda Tuccio-Koonz,


There's a certain glamour associated with being the director of a play.

After all, you're the boss. You get to tell everyone what to do -- when to be coy, when to be amorous. When to go for the big laugh, and when to tug at heartstrings.

Do a great job and you just might have a hit on your hands. But as any good director will tell you, the challenges are many, and they start long before the first scene is staged. They start with choosing the right play.

Chesley Plemmons is director of "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," a newly opened show at TheatreWorks New Milford. It was written by Alfred Uhry, who also penned "Driving Miss Daisy." It's set in the days just before the premiere of "Gone With the Wind."

So, of all the possible choices, how did he pick "Ballyhoo?"

"Having reviewed almost 2,000 plays as theater critic at The News-Times, I had a pretty good catalog to refer to in my head," said Plemmons, referring to shows he's reviewed everywhere from Broadway to London and Canada.

At 82, Plemmons remains one of theater's biggest fans. He and his longtime partner live in a pondside country house in Sherman; they share it with two uncontrollable dogs, Blazer and Daisy Mae.

"Some of the things you're looking for in a play are continuing value, opportunities for a good cast and freshness for the audience," said Plemmons. Though "Ballyhoo" won the 1997 Tony for Best Play, it has rarely been performed in Greater Danbury, making it a good choice.

Also, it's thought-provoking. "This is about a Jewish family living in Atlanta in 1939 and trying to assimilate into society by downplaying their own Jewishness," said Plemmons. On top of that, it's also funny. For example, "Boo, the family matriarch, refers to one of her Jewish friends as `a known liar and not worth the gunpowder it would take to blow her up.' "

They say they're Jewish, but they camouflage it, he said. They belong to a Jewish country club, but they put up a Christmas tree so their home looks like everyone else's.

As the play's director, Plemmons was responsible for casting its seven actors. He had to find people who could bring the characters to life, make the audience believe in them. The Atlanta family at the heart of this story lives in an upper class German-Jewish community. Though Hitler has recently conquered Poland, young women in the family are all caught up in plans for their cotillion, Ballyhoo, the social event of the year.

When an attractive bachelor appears on the scene, some in the family look down on him because even though he's Jewish, he's from Eastern Europe, and therefore not "one of them." Unexpected romantic and touching events unfold as the characters face where they come from and who they really are.

The story is about a little recognized form of prejudice, said Plemmons. The family is part of a group of people who are discriminated against, yet they themselves are prejudiced against their own kind.

"People don't want to hear the truth all the time about their wrong attitudes, but they don't seem to mind it as much if it's couched in humor," he added.

"This play, to me, is about something that's still a very sensitive issue. Prejudice has been around I think as long as man, because it's an illness that develops out of fear, for the most part fear that the "other kind" is going to get something you have, your job, your position in society, etc. Even though a lot has been done in the last 100 years to alleviate prejudice, it still exists. And it's doubtful it will ever truly go away as long as man has the seed of insecurity inside him."

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