Byhalia, Mississippi

28336339_1735793676458973_8964546482321669330_oIt’s a good night of theater when the play you’re watching can make you think. It’s a fun night of theater when the play you’re watching can make you laugh. It’s a cathartic night of theater when the play you’re watching can make you cry. But, when the play you are watching can make you think, then laugh, then gasp, then cry, then laugh, then think some more – well, that’ s just about the best night of theater there is. Byhalia, Mississippi, currently playing at Carnegie Stage, provides just such a night of great theater.

Playwright Evan Linder has created a moving, surprisingly delicate exploration of a tough subject – that of race, history, honesty, and the possibility of forgiveness. The play tells the tale of a white couple, Laurel and Jim Parker, whose marriage is devastated when Laurel gives birth to a black baby, thus exposing her past infidelity – a simple enough plot. But it’s a plot set in Byhalia, MS, a small southern town living with the legacy of a controversial racial history. (Read the 1974 Harvard Crimson article, “The Once and Future Mississippi,” for a contemporary account of the events alluded to in the show.)

It is through this history, this omnipresent racial tension that lays silently underneath everything, that the characters of Byhalia, Mississippi must navigate. This town-wide Zeitgeist is mirrored in the microcosm of Jim and Laurel’s chaotic marriage and the tangential harm they do to others – like Ayesha, the wife of the man with whom Laurel had the affair, and Karl, Jim’s friend since childhood. Both Ayesha and Karl are black, and it is no coincidence that neither Laurel nor Jim initially recognizes the long-ranging damage their actions cause for these characters.

And so a mildly tawdry plot becomes a struggle to seek understanding, forgiveness, and an honest way forward, with Linder encompassing big ideas within the small space of a domestic melodrama. He makes you laugh and get caught up in the high emotions of the piece, and then he saves the script from becoming pure soap opera with complex portrayals of character and relationships.

off the WALL’s talented acting ensemble gives their very best in service to this script, and it certainly pays off. Erika Cuenca as Laurel is the heartbeat of the production and keeps firm control of this rollercoaster ride of a performance. Hope Anthony does a great job of fleshing out the role of Ayesha, a character that seems at times more of a mouthpiece for the political themes of the show than a fully developed individual. Ms. Anthony brings a warmth and humanity to a role that could tend towards stridency.  Lamar K. Cheston is riveting as Karl; you can’t take your eyes off him when he’s onstage. And while Karl’s rejection of Jim in the final moments of the play seems too abrupt and only minimally motivated within the construct of the action, Mr. Cheston saves the moment with his full-tilt combination of anger and heartbreak. Virginia Wall Gruenert unhesitantly embraces her role of the judgemental southern mother, not holding back on either the humor or the grotesquery of the role. And, finally, Brandon Meeks as Jim is simply terrific, creating a vulnerable and nuanced performance of a redneck white guy that could easily have gotten out of hand with a less skilled actor.

Ingrid Sonnichsen directed the piece with a subtle and deft touch, creating such a naturalistic piece, you could believe you were seeing into your neighbor’s window, and not watching rehearsed acting. The rhythm of the performances was spot on, pacing was just right, and each moment, whether humorous or serious, was given its full weight. Accents were consistent and not over the top, thanks to dialect coach Nancy McNulty.

Set designer Adrienne Fischer and costumer Kim Brown created a world full of detail, texture, and humor. The only thing missing was a light coming from the inside of the refrigerator to complete the illusion. Lighting design was a bit flat for my taste. I didn’t see enough specific lighting sources like lamps and overhead lights. Lighting was too generalized and one-toned, eliminating any interesting shadows, contours or colors and flattening out the set as a whole. Sound and music design was subtle and appropriate and seemed effortless.

Byhalia, Mississippi runs from April 20 – May 5, 2018 at Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA 15106. For ticket information visit www.insideoffthewall.com. This is a 99-seat theater, so you’ll want to buy your tickets soon; you don’t miss out on this wonderful production.



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