Chicago Theatre Review
A Story of Love and Forgiveness
Byhalia, Mississippi – def*i*ni*tion Theatre Company
Jim and Laurel Parker are a loving couple, self-proclaimed “proud, white trash,” living in a modest, two-bedroom bungalow in this titular small, southern town. Laurel worked at the local high school and Jim’s between jobs, at least for the moment. That’s a big problem because, as the play opens, the couple is about to welcome their first, albeit overdue, child into the world. As they say, timing is everything; and the Parkers not only lack the necessary means to provide for themselves, at present, but for a new baby, as well.
Playwright Evan Linder, who also portrays Jim, has added still more complications to his script that challenge this marriage. Although the details are sketchy, Jim had at one time been unfaithful, but his wife ultimately decided to forgive his transgression. Laurel, however, isn’t completely innocent either, having had a brief affair of her own, perhaps in retaliation for her husband’s infidelity. The result, however, is much different. When Laurel finally gives birth, it’s to a black baby, which sets off a wave of anger reflective of this small town’s volatile racial climate. Linder also explores the hypocrisy between male and female relationships: what’s often seen as excusable philandering for the man isn’t nearly as forgivable for the woman. At least, that’s the belief in Byhalia, Mississippi.
Three superbly-written supporting characters further develop these themes. Celeste, Laurel’s opinionated, often meddlesome mother hovers around the house, providing maternal support and unwanted advice. Karl, a long-time friend to both Jim and Laurel, is a kind, resourceful African American who’s buried his own personal feelings and prejudices, in the need to survive this bigoted world. Ayesha, the beautiful, intelligent wife of Laurel’s school principal, journeys from guarded friendliness to pro-active anger, revealing personal drive and deep secrets in the eleventh hour of this riveting, often funny drama.
Director Tyrone Phillips remounts his original staging, co-produced by the New Colony and the Definition Theatre Company, in Steppenwolf’s brand-new 1700 Theatre. It’s paced beautifully and plays nicely in this new space, maybe even better, than when it premiered last winter at the Den. This edgy drama about love and forgiveness, set within an unstable world of racial tension and bigotry, became an overwhelming critical and popular success earlier this year. The original production of this play, by the author of “ReWILDing Genius,” “5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche” and “The Bear Suit of Happiness,” deservedly went on to win three non-Equity Jeff Awards, including Best New Work.
Staged once again within John Wilson’s realistic, Jeff Award-winning set, the audience experiences the story inside the Parker’s thrift store-decorated living room and kitchen, with a front porch and gravel path that winds around downstage toward the driveway. A rickety ladder leads up to the “smoking lounge” on the roof. In both stagings the audience is never more than a few feet from the action, of which there’s plenty. Kudos to sound designer Gary Tiedemann for adding one more layer of authenticity to the theatrical environment, enhanced by a lifelike lighting design by Slick Jorgensen. Christy Hall’s costumes embody the characters’ lower middle-class existence, while still appearing natural and comfortable.
Once more, Phillips’ cast give frank, unaffected performances that feel honest and truthful. Liz Sharpe is magnificent as Laurel, a young woman who, from the very beginning, is coping with so much that we don’t understand it all, until later in the play. She’s physically uncomfortable, with a pregnancy that’s gone beyond her due date; she’s dealing with a mother, whom she loves, but who won’t stop offering unsolicited advice about everything; she’s worried, with good cause, about the paternity of her baby; and she’s struggling with a marriage that, because of secret infidelities and a shaky emotional and financial future, may be headed for the rocks. Evan Linder’s portrayal of Jim is also multilayered. He’s that recognizable man-child most of us know and love who, despite his lack of maturity and responsibility, continues to somehow make it in life. He’s a loving, sweet-natured and somewhat naive young man, with certain uncompromising principles that prevent his accepting the real world.
As Celeste, Cecilia Wingate is a force of nature. She plays Laurel’s mother with spit and vinegar, a strident, opinionated, straightforward meddler and loving one-woman support team. Ms. Wingate absolutely deserves her Jeff Award for this role, a character she has truly made her own. Jeffrey Owen Freelon, Jr., as Karl, makes a charming, quietly caring best friend for Jim, a champion from childhood, who’s faithfully stuck by his buddy in spite of all odds and the demeaning treatment by others. Kiki Layne begins the play as a composed, professional young Ayesha, supportive of her husband and children, as well as her friends and community. But as the play spirals to its conclusion, the young woman has grown a backbone and become a different person. She’s more vindictive and less forgiving than when she began, wielding a hammer and charging into the Parker home with a new attitude. It’s in this transformation that we see Ms. Layne’s true skill as an actress.
In this welcome remount of one of the season’s finest productions, audiences are given one more opportunity to enjoy this finely-directed, exquisitely-performed play by one of Chicago’s most respected, up-and-coming new playwrights. Fortunate are his students at the University of Chicago, for they’re able to glean so much wisdom from a gifted theatrical artist. Along with Mr. Linder’s other entertaining and intriguing plays, this engaging, impressive production, filled with humor and realistic characters, is sure to put Evan Linder and director Tyrone Phillips on every theatre’s wish list. Chicago is so lucky to have these talented young artists, and while we’re enjoying this latest collaboration, we can only speculate what wonders still lie ahead.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 22-August 21 by def*i*ni*tion Theatre Company in association with The New Colony at the new Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, 1700 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Steppenwolf box office, by calling them at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.