Byhalia, Mississippi, is one of those nowhere, dead-end small towns that no one wants to live in. Except for the young woman from somewhere else, who just gave birth to a baby by a man other than her husband. She sees Byhalia as a safe place to raise and protect her child.
The New Colony and Definition Theatre production of Byhalia, Mississippi, written by Evan Linder and directed by Tyrone Phillips, just opened at Steppenwolf’s new 1700 Theatre. The play had a successful run, including winning three Jeff awards, early this year at the Den Theatre; the remounted play features the original cast. Linder, who also plays the male lead, has written a script that deals with issues of class, race and family in a down-at-the-heels southern town.
The play opens with Laurel (Liz Sharpe), who is as pregnant as you can be, plopped on the sofa in her living room. Her mother Celeste (Cecelia Wingate) has come from Jackson to help with the new baby, now about two weeks past the due date (which is a medical fantasy anyway). Impatient with her mother’s hovering and criticism, Laurel convinces her to go home and wait until the baby arrives.
Laurel’s husband, Jim (Evan Linder), has lost his construction job because he didn’t want to travel (and Laurel wanted to keep him from the away-from-home temptations). He’s desperate enough to take a job collecting carts at Walmart. For now, he’s hanging out, smoking pot. They’re running short of money and Laurel isn’t sure when she’ll be able to go back to her job teaching at Byhalia High School.
Everyone is excited about the arrival of the new baby, including Jim’s childhood buddy, Karl (Jeffrey Frelon), who builds a crib for the new baby and cleans and decorates the house while Laurel is in the hospital.
By the end of act one, the baby is born and Laurel acknowledges that Jim isn’t the father.
At intermission, my friend turned to me and asked, “Is this culturally condescending? Are we urban northerners looking down our noses at white trash?” We discussed that. In act two, the play’s perspective changed and so did ours, as we learn more of Laurel and Jim’s backstory and motivations.
Byhalia is a real town in north Mississippi, closer to Memphis than to the state capital of Jackson. The population is about 1200 and its claim to fame is that William Faulkner died there. Celeste laments, “I couldn’t keep you from marrying Jim, I couldn’t keep you from moving to Byhalia. And I mean it, Laurel. Byhalia. It’s embarrassing. My bridge club. It’s embarrassing.” Characters talk about living in Jackson as if it’s midtown Manhattan. (Was that cultural condescension?)
Linder has written a script with a setting, characters and dialogue as realistic and gritty as any urban drama. Phillips’ direction keeps the cast realistic and the pacing smooth. Linder, Sharpe and Wingate give very effective performances. In act two, complexities of race, love and family are sorted out as best they can be.
John Wilson’s scenic design features an appropriately trashy living room, with the outer wall open so that arrivals and departures are part of the action. Matt Test engineers Gary Tiedemann’s original sound. Lighting is by Slick Jorgensen and costumes by Kristy Hall.
Audience members at opening night had two frustrations. One, there was no playbill and we were advised to go online for information. Since you have to put your smartphone on airplane mode, that isn’t an option. Second, the sound quality was erratic. The actors seemed to be speaking at a conversational level suitable for a living room, rather than a theater. Since this is the first production in the new 1700 venue, the director and crew can easily fix the problem.
Byhalia, Mississippi, presented by the New Colony and Definition theater companies, continues at the Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, 1700 N. Halsted, through August 21. Performances are Thursday through Sunday; you can buy tickets for $30-35 online or by calling 312-335-1650.