Byhalia, Mississippi

Evan Linder and Liz Sharpe

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.

Al-Anon, Theater, Michael Jackson & Trivia (December 20, 2013)

The experiences and diversions of which I availed myself this week, in an attempt to put back together the pieces of my shattered heart and move on with my life, were nothing if not diverse. As is the case with the dissolution of any toxic relationship, receding from crisis mode offers the benefit of perspective. I am slowly becoming aware of how many opportunities I declined or avoided in a futile effort to manage my partner’s temptations, to lavish him with enough attention and support to keep his thoughts and inclinations far from wasting time in a bottle. That these exertions of attempted control over an appetite and force larger than myself were destined to fail, now seems pitifully obvious. So much lost opportunity and energy.

Obviously, there’s nothing I can do to change the past, to rewrite history in order to let go when I should have. But I don’t have to keep making the same mistakes. I don’t have to remain in the fetal position lambasting myself for my time as “that girl,” the one who fell into the logical fallacy trap of believing that loving enough could foment change in one who made his choices years before our first encounter. And since I rarely do anything at half-throttle, I launched myself head first at every novel occasion.

Monday: The first of many Al-Anon meetings. As an atheist, I found myself more than a little uncomfortable with the recitation of the Serenity Prayer which opens and closes each meeting, as well as the frequent mentions of God or a “higher power.” But another friend of mine working the program gave me some great advice that I will endeavor to apply. Frame the “higher power” idea as the energy of the universe, your sponsor, or your own inner strength – whatever speaks to you. I can also see I’ll struggle with the forgiveness elements of the curriculum for the forseeable future, as well as the explicit instructions that what you place at the top of your priority pyramid should not be another person (obviously) or even the distracting intoxicants of work (dammit!). Somehow, some way, I’ll have to learn to put my own emotional and physical well-being there – a notion antithetical to my essence. I suppose that’s why I need to be in these meetings. I’m committed to change and that is never easy.

Tuesday: Back in my comfort zone taking in a production of Nina Raine’s Tribes at the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre. The play grapples with questions of communication and inclusiveness. Do we need spoken words to convey layered meaning or can we navigate the enormous depth and range of human emotion with visual symbols alone? What does it mean to be within or without a personal communication system, and what effect does that inclusion or exclusion have on one’s self-image?

This gets me thinking about my ex’s daughter and granddaughter. The friendships will be maintained but the terms of our relationships have changed and over time, shared experiences and inside jokes will accumulate without me. I will become more of an outsider, a “Somebody That I Used to Know.” This awareness fills me with bottomless sadness, but I don’t push it away. I take it in.

Wednesday: Major gear shift to attend the holiday party of my employer for the first time. Decent conversation, good food and drink and OH SHIT IS THAT A MICHAEL JACKSON IMPERSONATOR!? I jump on the seat of the nearest booth, so I can witness every crotch grab and moonwalk over the heads of my colleagues and everything else disappears. I don’t care that I am singing at the top of my lungs along with someone who only approximates the King of Pop, or that the wait staff gives me strange looks when I bend down from my perch for a wine refill. I am lost in the moment. Right now, right here, I am joy.

Later Wednesday Evening: As the great Ernest Hemingway would have observed, I am a little “tight” when I meet two of my best galpals for an Illinois Woman’s Press Association strategy session followed by a round of bar trivia. Fortunately I am 35 and appear to have learned a lesson or two about pacing. I switch to water, sip the half-price wine slowly and intermittently take mental steps back to appreciate the fact that I am out and about using my brain alongside two women I love, respect and admire. A broken, competitive and abusive relationship with my mother controlled my interactions with the other members of my sex for many years, and time was I could count close female confidantes on one hand with a couple fingers left over. No more.

These musings inspire me. I am capable of learning through a combination of self-awareness and frustration. Maybe that is my “higher power.”