BWW Review: Remounting of BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI at Steppenwolf's 1700 Theatre Fuels the Mind and the Heart
Evan Linder's new play BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI begins with a scene familiar to those in the audience: a mother and her adult daughter squabbling. The daughter, Laurel, is several months pregnant. And while her mother just wants to be present for the birth of her grandchild, Laurel has had enough. But as the play progresses, we soon learn that Laurel and her husband Jim May not be quite ready for the demands of parenthood. And in a surprising twist following the birth of the child, Laurel and Jim-who are self-declared "white trash"-must also come face-to-face with some harsh realities and confront long-standing, deeply embedded racist beliefs. In this way, Linder's play provides striking food for thought on contemporary social issues, while also becoming a specific portrait of the life of this one couple. And while Chicago audiences may largely be unfamiliar with the small-town Southern lifestyle of BYHALIA'S characters, he makes us feel for these flawed personalities.
This remount of the New Colony and Definition Theatre Company's production possesses an intense vividness. John Wilson's set design prepares the scene (aided by Kristy Hall's costumes, Slick Jorgensen's lighting, and Gary Tiedemann's original sound design) as it transports audiences to rural Mississippi. Wilson's set possesses an incredible life-like quality, down to the pieces of gravel lining the periphery.
The rawness and immediacy of Linder's script (he also stars) is elevaTed Further by the stellar, multi-dimensional performances. As Laurel, Liz Sharpe has full command over her performance, and she truly inhabits her character's arch. Sharpe allows us to see Laurel's transformation as a new mother and the ways in which her relationship with her newborn child forces her to confront some long-standing beliefs and past behavior. This is particularly evident when her childhood friend Ayesha (Kiki Layne) comes calling and gives her a reality check. Linder provides a great counterpart to Sharpe in the role of Jim, and the two possess a convincing onstage chemistry. They fully make the audience believe in the tangled web that comprises Laurel and Jim's relationship.
Sharpe is similarly engaged with Cecelia Wingate, who plays the role of her mother, Celeste. This too feels like a genuine mother-daughter relationship. And Wingate manages to find the real humor in her lines, while also possessing a willingness to engage with the harsher side of her character. In Wingate's delivery of the dialogue, we're able to see that Laurel inherited some of her most uncomfortable beliefs from her mother.
As Jim's African American friend since elementary school, Karl, Jeffrey Owen Freelon also delivers a lovely performance. Freelon particularly hits his stride in the second act when he must deliver some harsh truths to Jim.
Overall the performances in BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI are finely honed and deeply felt. These performances will stay with me and heighten the emotional intensity in Linder's beautiful play. This new drama fuels both the mind and the heart. Linder gives audiences much to ponder and question as the play unfolds but also bestows his characters with so much empathy.
The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company's BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI plays Steppenwolf's 1700 Theatre through August 21. Tickets are $30-$35 and can be purchased online at steppenwolf.org.
Photo by Evan Hanover