by John Stoltenberg
The pivotal character in this profoundly moving comedy is Laurel, a young woman who has relocated from Jackson to Byhalia, Mississippi, to make a life with the young man she plans to love for the rest of her life. She is pregnant and overdue. A snob might think them “white trash” because they’re broke and this is the South, but they are rich in joy and mutual affection. And in Caroline Neff’s incandescent performance, Laurel keeps us caring about her every instant—not least when no one else does because her baby turns out to be black.
Evan Linder’s Byhalia, Mississippi, won Chicago’s prestigious Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Work in 2016, and it was highly praised in DC Metro Theatre Arts when it was staged in 2017 at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Now The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has mounted a new production that pulses with ever more funniness and feeling as its seven scenes unfold.
The play takes place in Jim and Laurel’s low-cost, single-story house set down on a concrete block foundation. Designed by Cameron Anderson, it looks as if a flood or a twister would be the end of it. Analogously, the play puts the foundation of Jim’s and Laurel’s relationship to the test of a storm that neither of them saw coming.
The play opens with hilarious bickering between a very pregnant Laurel and her overbearing, hypercritical mother, Celeste (an alarmingly credible Cecelia Wingate), who is visiting for the delivery.
They keep saying “I love you” to each other even when what they say is snarky and cutting. It is a motif that Linder sustains brilliantly throughout. I cannot recall a play containing more mixed-message “I love you”s.
We see Jim smoking pot on the roof. As he comes inside, with a spritz of Febreze that fools no one, he encounters Celeste’s longstanding low opinion of him. Laurel, fed up with her mother’s judgments and nagging, insists that she leave. Alone together, Laurel and Jim have a playful, sexually charged scene that establishes their passion for each other in spite of some rifts. Jack Falahee is arresting as a lanky and wired Jim who we sense could explode any moment in lust or rage.
The second scene takes place after the birth of the baby that is Laurel’s but not Jim’s. Jim bursts in on Karl, his buddy from childhood, who has been helping out preparing a nursery. Just on the basis of the fact that Karl is black, Jim accuses him of fathering the baby. The insult wounds Karl deeply, and we see in Blake Morris’s nuanced portrayal of Karl the start of a rupture in their friendship.
Matters go even worse between Laurel and Jim when she returns from the hospital with the baby they had planned to name Bobby if a boy or Bobbi if a girl. Jim is in an unbecoming fury. He wants to divorce her. Laurel tries to reach him, to ask his forgiveness, in hopes he will stay with her and regard the baby as his. Jim just wants out.
Laurel’s mother, Celeste, returns and wants another kind of end to it. She wants Laurel to get rid of the baby, to give it up for adoption. Laurel says no.
In the second act, an elegantly dressed black woman arrives named Ayesha, a childhood friend of Laurel’s. As it happens, she is the wife of the man who fathered Laurel’s child. Aimé Donna Kelly brings a magnetic hauteur to the role, never more imposing than when she orders Laurel to take the baby and get out of town.
It’s now Laurel and her baby against everyone. She gets no one’s sympathy except ours. And we care for her, oh how we care for her, that she and the baby will be alright.
Kimberly Senior directs with a lifeline to every character’s truth and to every heart in the house. Jen Caprio’s uncondescending costumes remind us that though these characters are lower class, they are individuals with real lives. Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design most strikingly announces someone’s arrival with the sound of tires on gravel. Jennifer Reiser’s lighting captures both the garishness of overhead fluorescents and the homely warmth of thrift shop lamps. And Dave Anzuelo’s fight choreography is spot-on character-specific.
In a riveting play through which flow powerful and complex themes of love, forgiveness, and racism, Linder has created in Laurel a role for the ages. She is a character of humble status whose resilience and moral stature rank with theater’s greatest heroines. And Caroline Neff’s performance in the role is indelible.
Don’t miss this superb production of an absolutely extraordinary new play.
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one intermission.
Byhalia, Mississippi plays through July 7, 2019, presented at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Terrace Theater, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324 or go online.