“At the risk of going full-bore Pollyanna, we were supposed to be better than this. The Cubs organization should have wanted no part of Chapman. We have dance party rooms and petting zoo field days. Violence and recklessness are not the Maddon/Epstein values. Right? To follow my work is to know I want to the Cubbies to prevail as much as any other diehard. It’s in my very bloodstream. But not at the expense of moral degradation.”
“Yes. The Bernie Bros and their relentless bullshit partially marred a historic and inspiring week. Male privilege interrupted the unadulterated joy of so many women who never believed this moment possible. To watch 102 year-old Arizona delegate Jerry Emmett euphorically report her state’s votes for Hillary Clinton is to understand the impact of the candidate’s accomplishment on female Americans. It should have shut the naysayers up for a bit.
On Tuesday afternoon, after Bernie Sanders’ brother Larry delivered an emotional tribute to his sibling’s 2016 primary success, Bernie finally stepped up to the unification plate. He acquitted himself well with a motion to transfer all delegates to Clinton. It was a satisfying conclusion to what had become a party damaging refusal to acknowledge defeat. Democrats could finally make a united pivot toward keeping Trump from the White House. Or so I thought.”
The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company’s three-time 2016 Jeff Award-winner “Byhalia, Mississippi” returns to the Chicago stage at just the right time. This is an election year, and in fact, as the work made its press debut Monday night at the Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, DNC 2016 was just getting underway.
Last week’s RNC, a literally whitewashed affair that did much to trumpet (pun definitely intended) fear of thy neighbor (especially when he or she is brown-skinned) and this week’s Democratic vision of evolving inclusiveness: they feel like appropriate bookends to an important artistic exercise in taking a hard, extended look at the tensions of now. Poverty versus privilege, evolving racial attitudes in the Deep South, gendered politics — these are just a few of the issues the work tackles.
And “Byhalia, Mississippi” does so without the sort of preachy, heavy self-seriousness that often derails entertainment into the realm of propaganda. The script is laugh-out-loud funny, achingly human and brilliantly acted by the returning original cast. At times the scenes are tough to watch. It is a persistent challenge to audiences, with underlying questions that any thinking person will take home to consider. Are we obligated to live honestly (a much different query than interrogations of “truth”)? And how far have we come along the path of universal acceptance?
The story is ultimately one of love, the bond between Jim and Laurel Parker (Evan Linder, Liz Sharpe). As the press materials distil it, “[The couple] is about to become new parents. They are broke. They are loud… When Laurel gives birth to their long overdue child, she and Jim are faced with the biggest challenge of their lives.”
What’s narratively fascinating is that Jim and Laurel are two people who betray and hurt each other. They are exposed to scandal and in fact, Linder and Sharpe spend a lot of the show’s two-hour and 15 minutes running time acting in different scenes. Though the characters are frequently separated and estranged by some corrosive internal and external influences, they ultimately remain each other’s “plan.” Their relationship reveals that there are elements of choice involved in matters of the heart. This is existentially comforting somehow, even if the road to reconciliation is a humiliating, rough ride.
These are not “good” people, and the dialogue goes to painstaking effort to suggest that there’s no such thing. But even as their lives come completely apart and others are waylaid as so much collateral damage, the bond between Jim and Laurel is perversely inspiring. And dammit, incongruity is a cold, naked human reality. This critic had grateful tears running down her cheeks during the production’s touching, soft ultimate scene.
Linder and Sharpe are terrific, as is every other performer on the stage. Cecilia Wingate, who plays Laurel’s stuck in the Jim Crow era but still somehow overbearingly lovable mother Celeste, — she’s a revelation. One of the three Jeff Awards doled out to “Byhalia, Mississippi” in 2016 include a Best Actress in a Supporting Role nod for Wingate. So well deserved. Talented is the actress who can engender genuine, complicated sympathy in a character who might be unlikeable under another’s care.
The writing from the playwright, lead actor, and New Colony Co-Artistic Director Evan Linder is fast, organic and complicated. Tyrone Phillips directs his experienced cast and crew with the fluidity and familiarity of an artist who understands the power of dialogue. “Byhalia, Mississippi” needs no special effects to have an explosive impact. And the intimacy of the Steppenwolf’s new 1700 Theatre is a perfect fit for such deeply personal material.
Highly recommended Summer 2016 viewing at a critical juncture for the determination of 21st Century American values.
“Byhalia, Mississippi” runs through August 21 at the Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, 1700 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.
“Did we really need exposed emails to confirm what the party already knew? Despite what we routinely hear from the arrogant mouth of Donald Trump, being right is not in fact its own reward. It’s incredibly unfortunate to watch DNC 2016 start off with the wrong kind of bang through a long series of unforced errors.”
“Though he was rested during today’s away win against the Milwaukee Brewers, it sure feels good to have Center Fielder Dexter Fowler back in the Cubs lineup. The 2016 All-Star with the fanciest moniker in baseball was missing for a month with a hamstring strain, but finally took the field for Friday’s opener in Wisconsin. Any lingering concerns about his health were erased with a big 3-4 performance at the plate, including a home run.”