Now extended thru February 21!
A trip well worth taking, and one of the best new shows of the year
|The New Colony i/a/w Definition Theatre Company presents|
Review by Clint May
In historian and marriage expert Stephanie Coontz’s “Marriage, a History,” she recounts the incredulity of Jesuit missionaries encountering the North American Montagnais-Naskapi. Shocked at the freedom the native women enjoyed, a missionary “warned a Naskapi man that if he did not impose tighter controls on his wife, he would never know for sure which of the children she bore belonged to him. The Indian was equally shocked that this mattered to Europeans. ‘You French people,’ he replied, ‘love only your own children; but we love all the children of our tribe.’” It’s an astonishing anecdote that would make many modern men still feel squeamish in a primal way.
When a modern day couple in a small Southern town are faced with irrefutable evidence of the wife’s infidelity, the foundations of faith, forgiveness and family are explored with excruciating detail and a surprising amount of humor. Byhalia, Mississippi is a world-premiere co-production between The New Colony and Definition Theatre, and the results turn a trend on my own inability to recommend New Colony productions, and I couldn’t be more pleased. This is a beautifully acted and brutally realistic exploration of betrayal and the price of truth.
High school sweethearts Jim (Evan Linder) and Laurel (Liz Sharpe) have a plan. Get married, have kids, and settle down in Jim’s hometown of Byhalia (pop 1,302) just outside of Memphis. They’re broke but generally happy. Jim smokes pot on the roof and seeks low paying jobs at Wal-Mart and construction while Laurel works at the local high school. A while back, a bump in that ‘plan’ arose when Jim admitted to cheating, but that all seems in the distant past. In the present, they appear to be a loving couple who maybe aren’t successful by outside standards but have no doubt of their own devotion to each other. Their first baby is on the way but stubbornly refusing to come out on his due date.
When the child does arrive, his dark skin is a nuclear bomb in the middle of their domestic bliss, especially because it seems to come from left field. It’s a biting commentary on the nature of dual infidelity. As a man, Jim was able to leave his in the past with no evidence he must lay claim to. Laurel’s moment of weakness has no such luxury and his skin is a klaxxon blare of Jim’s cuckolding to the surrounding community. There’s nothing to be done but face up to a harsh reality.
Linder creates three great characters to orbit the fallout. Jim’s best friend Karl (Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr.) first falls into the crosshairs as the potential father. Laurel’s overbearing mother Celeste (Cecelia Wingate) can’t put on a big enough “church face” to cover up her distaste for what she sees as a cataclysmic blunder by her daughter. The baby’s father’s wife—and Laurel’s former classmate—Ayesha (Kiki Layne) wants to turn Laurel into Mississippi’s own Hester Prynne, complete with a certain item nailed to a door.
Byhalia is uncompromising in its peeling away of the layers of a hypocritical façade that are not unique to the American South, from whence playwright Linder comes. There’s an underlying compassion for these people that imbues everything with heart and views them as fallible but not unforgivably human, bungling their way through life and hoping to find someone who will help them find their way. It doesn’t hurt that several moments find organic humor in the situation. When Celeste angrily storms off from a fight, Laurel finds just the right note of terseness and love when she admonishes her to still call her when she makes it home safe. Such knowing insights into the frustration of the ties that bind are sprinkled liberally throughout Byhalia.
Each of these characters feels utterly real and palpable thanks to Definition Theatre Tyrone Phillip’s exquisite direction. He’s a relatively new, young talent, and his deftness here makes it clear he’s a force to follow. Linder and Sharpe’s chemistry is undeniable, and even in their darkest moments you find yourself rooting for them with all their flaws because they feel so inevitable together. Freelon hits all the right notes as a man who enables his best friend for reasons he can’t quite articulate while delivering some of the production’s most understatedly humorous lines. As a strong woman desperately trying to preserve her family and her position within the community, Layne is an absorbing picture of a person struggling with the sacrament of forgiveness.
Amidst these wonderful performances, it’s Wingate and Sharpe who emerge as the most compelling. Their inhabitation of a mother/daughter relationship bucks stereotypes and rings with truth at every level. Each of them creates a complex, nuanced character who is strong in their own way and bound by genuine love. This level of authenticity extends into the design team, where John Wilson’s humble wood-paneled home creates the perfect setting for the drama.
This production flummoxed me, given my past less-than-enjoyable outings with New Colony. It just works on every level, and I’m not sure we’ll ever know just how much that is owed to Definition’s influence, but I’d happily return to see another collaboration if this is any indication of the quality to be expected. In fact, I’d watch a sequel, so deep was my empathy for these characters. Byhalia’s world premiere took place in four cities simultaneously (Chicago, Toronto, Memphis, Charleston), and I’ll be curious to see how each city interprets this work. As for Chicagoans, I can only say this: book your tickets for a trip down South now.
Byhalia, Mississippi continues through
February 14th February 21st at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $20-$30, and are available online at Tixato.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TheNewColony.org. (Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, includes an intermission)
behind the scenes
Tyrone Phillips (director), Kristina Loy (assistant director), Maria Privitera (script supervisor), Sarah Collonge (production manager), Eli Grove (technical director), Clarissa Jugo (stage manager), Ryan Jarosch (assistant stage manager), John Wilson (scenic design), Slick Jorgensen (lighting design), Kotryno Hilko (costume design), Gary Tiedemann (sound design), Kira Lyon (props design), Liz Sharpe (makeup and hair design), Will Bennett (fight choreographer), Joe Mazza/Brave Lux (photos)