Take a Trip to Byhalia, Mississippi -- At the Kennedy Center through July 7
In a post-show talk at the Kennedy Center last week, playwright Evan Linder described his play Byhalia, Mississippi, as a love letter to the region where he grew up, although he may not feel so welcome in little towns south of Memphis, now that he has shined a light on the complicated landscape of racial, economic and social tensions that permeate those communities.
“I wanted to see characters onstage that were people I knew,” he said. “Not some broad stereotype, but real people from the South,” he contended.
Linder accomplished his goal, and then some, with his family drama set in rural Mississippi that focuses on the strained relationships between mother and daughter, husband and wife, two best friends of difference races, and the larger black and white communities of Byhalia, a town of 1,300 people that boasts a Wal-Mart, a high school team mascot that caricatures Native Americans, and not much else.
The play opens with Laurel (an exceptional Caroline Neff), splayed out on the couch of her tiny, wood paneled home, nine and a half months pregnant and suffering in the summer heat that’s come early. Her overbearing, eccentric mother Celeste (the outstanding Cecelia Wingate) hovers in the kitchen, annoyed that her first grandchild is two weeks late and annoying her daughter with her every move — even eating a banana. Bickering on well-traveled subjects — from Laurel’s choice of husband, to her decision to leave her hometown of Jackson, to the unreliable crib assembled by a family friend — these are women that push each other’s buttons for sport.
Laurel finally convinces her mother to leave until after the baby is born, which is a huge relief for her unemployed, redneck, pot smoking husband Jim, a convincingly rough-around-the-edges Jack Falahee. With their two-year marriage strained after Jim admitted an affair; little money and few job prospects; and the ever-intrusive, disapproving Celeste bearing down on them; the genuine love between the two soon-to-be parents seems like the only thing the new baby’s got going for him.
And after the delivery, that’s shattered too.
When it becomes apparent that the child is the product of an extramarital affair, the world turns upside down for everyone, with familial and racial tensions flaring in very ugly ways. From calling out micro-aggressions, to demands to recognize the cluelessness of their privilege, to “us versus them” ultimatums, every relationship Laurel and Jim have is profoundly affected — especially the one with their new child.
And instead of cutting to the next scene after these issues are raised, Byhalia Mississippi stubbornly keeps the spotlight on all parties, making them grapple with how to own up to their mistakes and then choose to reconcile, or simply forgive, or not. The fact that all this soul searching and truth telling is done with incredible humor is a testament both to Linder’s script and the actors who so effortlessly weave great emotional depth together with normal human folly.
As the “other woman” affected by Laurel’s affair, Aimé Donna Kelly is controlled but unmistakably fierce, covering her simmering rage with Southern “nice” while putting the consequences of Laurel’s actions into a larger, real world context. And as Jim’s best friend since grade school, Blake Anthony Morris pivots impressively when faced with difficult truths about their relationship, which has always felt unbalanced.
Cameron Anderson’s set is impressive, literally on many levels. The dingy, slightly shabby two bedroom house has one wall sheared off, sandwiching the cramped living space between the home’s unsubstantial foundation and Jim’s hiding place on the roof. Filled with knickknacks, the hyper-realistic interior is furnished with hand-me-downs and minimal past achievements — Jim’s high school football jersey is framed and hung in a place of honor, as someone who peaked early and has few future prospects.
In a show full of betrayal, misunderstanding, deliberate harm and unintended consequences, the most impressive through-line is Laurel’s, who insists on honesty, unconditional love and forgiveness from this point forward. It’s not an easy path to walk, it’s not always successful, and as a new mother, it may not even be possible. But in a larger narrative that needs a complete re-set, Laurel’s resolution to start again with a stronger foundation feels brave, and like a real step forward.