(left to right) Evan Linder and Liz Sharpe in The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company’s world premiere of BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI by Evan Linder, directed by Tyrone Phillips. Photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.
Review: BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI—The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company at Steppenwolf
By Hilary Holbrook
I saw this show last Thursday, and I had to sit with it for a few days. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was going to say. It is a good show. It’s well acted, well written, and the world is clear and cohesive, and those are all valid reasons to go see this piece. That’s not what I loved about it. BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI, The New Colony & Definition Theatre Company’s runaway hit, is a play that beautifully illustrates the difficult relationships between people, how happiness can be found—even in the bleakest of circumstances—and shows us just how far we still have to go in our dealings with racism in this country.
Written by Evan Linder, Co-Artistic Director of The New Colony, the play centers around Jim and Laurel, a married couple about to have their first baby. Laurel has followed Jim to Byhalia, a town that is a decided step backward, according to Laurel’s mother, Celeste (expertly played by Cecilia Wingate). For all accounts and purposes, Jim and Laurel are “white trash” and proud of it, but I didn’t really buy that. Sure, they do and say things that would make most middle-class families blush with horror, but Jim (Linder) and Laurel (Liz Sharpe) chose Byhalia. They chose this lifestyle. Does that make them white trash? I don’t know. The biggest test of their relationship comes when the baby arrives, and here is where Linder shows that one mistake can have a lasting effect on so many people.
Jim’s best friend, Karl (ingeniously played by Jeffery Owen Freelon, Jr.) goes through the ringer in this story. Friends since grade school, Karl sticks by Jim through some of the toughest times in Jim’s life-even though Jim is quick to judge against Karl from the beginning. He is the loyal, caring friend, and when he sticks up for himself, a moment that came rather abruptly, you are left rooting for him. The friendship between Jim and Karl illustrates how any relationship needs to be a two-way street. When one person gives more than the other, the outcome is never good. The same can be said of the relationship between Jim and Laurel, who went through the biggest change by the end of the play. In the beginning, Laurel is the pregnant wild-child without a real grasp on the term “consequences”. By the end, she has come to terms with her mistake, knows what’s important to her, and is not afraid to say it.
This was my first time seeing a show at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre. The entire building is beautiful, and John Wilson’s set looked gorgeous in the intimate studio space. Kudos, also, to Gary Tiedemann for his sound design, which put us in the mood from the moment the house opened, and, combined with Tyrone Phillips’ direction adequately showed a passage of time between scenes (as opposed to simply signalling where one scene ends and another begins). However, I could hear a significant amount of noise from the lobby during the performance, which was unfortunate. Also, in a move to be more environmentally conscious, the companies decided to not print programs. An admirable decision, but, as a compromise, I suggest printing a small amount of programs and asking the audience to return them. Or, at the very least, give us a lobby display. I wanted to know more about the actors, the world, the companies, etc., and, giving a patron direct access to all the information they could want upfront, while they are still in the theatre, ensures they have the best connection possible. Making more work for the patron by suggesting they visit two websites detracts from the experience.
This play shows how wonderfully messy people are. We make mistakes, snap judgements, and have so much more to learn, but, when we find what matters, we’d better fight like hell to keep it in our lives.