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Review: Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF): ‘Byhalia, Mississippi’

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Evan Linder‘s Byhalia, Mississippi pulls theatre-goers into familiar territory: the “white trash” world of Laurel and Jim. Once there, however, the unfamiliar takes shape: amidst the gutter talk, the racist behavior, the working poor’s low life, and the familial muddle, an endearing respect emerges for the grit and determination and love of Laurel and Jim.

Jessica Savage and Hollis McCarthy. Photo by Seth Freeman.

And that is the beauty of Byhalia, Mississippi. Such empathy is rare indeed.

Mississippi has a particular racist brand the deeper you travel into Yankeeland. That brand, rooted in the highest number of lynchings of any state in the union and later solidified during the Civil Rights era with the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, couldn’t be grimmer.

And Byhalia it seems is grimmer than the rest of Mississippi.

Meet Laurel and Jim, played with a fierce chemistry by Jessica Savage and Jason Babinsky. They are recently married and Laurel is with child. In fact, she is so much with child that she’s bursting two weeks overdue.

Laurel’s mother, Celeste (played with a fiery raspiness by Hollis McCarthy) drove in from Jackson to be with her daughter during the birth, two weeks ago.

Needless to say, tensions are running high, and Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Savage get the love-hate thing just right–snapping, demeaning, opinionating, and loyally defending to the end.

Yaegel T. Welch and Jason Babinsky. Photo by Seth Freeman.

This is family, after all, perhaps as it shouldn’t be, but as it is for so many.

Meanwhile, Jim is hiding out on the roof, getting high on weed. Having cheated on Laurel before the marriage and having lost his job after, Laurel’s love nonetheless is unwavering. Celeste’s feelings toward him, on the other hand, couldn’t go much lower.

Enter Karl (Yaegel T. Welch), Jim’s childhood African American friend, and Ayesha (Adrian Kiser), Laurel’s childhood African American not friend.

And, then, there comes a baby who looks nothing like his father.

Director Marc Masterson does an excellent job keeping the various plots and relationships knit together.

Jessica Savage and Adrian Kiser. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Set Designer David M. Barber’s wonderful panoramic set with sky, telephone pole, and rustic interior captures the world’s absence of material comfort, as well as its absence of natural beauty. D. M. Wood’s lights add to the three dimensionality of the space.

Trevor Bowen does a fantastic job with the costumes, capturing a bit of personality with each wardrobe.

Mr. Linder’s desire to highlight each relationship is both the play’s strength and its challenge.

Among the four young people–Laurel, Jim, Karl, and Ayesha–the audience witnesses change. Each makes important life decisions, with all the painful fortitude that’s required to alter the direction of a life.

And in this time when so much change is in the offering, the audience sometimes wanted a bit more time dedicated to the transformation.

Funny and enlightening, Byhalia, Mississippi is a heartfelt portrayal of life amongst the lower half.

Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission.

Byhalia, Mississippi and The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) continue through July 30, 2017. Tickets to CATF and for Wild Horses can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, by calling (800) 999-CATF (2283), or by purchasing them online.

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