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Byhalia, Mississippi - Pittsburgh Theater

The play will open at off the WALL productions your alternative Pittsburgh Theater

April 20, 2018

The following is a review by Chris Jones, printed in the Chicago Tribune.

Spoiler Alert! Do not read if you want to be surprised.

Evan Linder, one of the Chicago theater's most prodigious talents, has achieved a great deal: He is the co-artistic director of the New Colony, a busy actor and a satiric storefront scribe with a penchant for conceptual populism. His 2009 show, "Frat," was an amusing deconstruction of frat-boy excess and his "5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche" enjoyed tasty New York reviews and a decent off-Broadway run.

I've long been interested in Linder's work. But it took until Monday night for him to deliver an honest-to-goodness play. By that I mean a really good new American drama: something wise, truthful, funny and moving; a piece that other theaters should do; a script that hangs easily with shows by the leading writers of our day and a show that might bring a little moistness to one's cheek.

"Byhalia, Mississippi" is that play. I fell for it quite hard. I think you would, too. It's lovely.

Set in the titular small town — which is half an hour south of Memphis — this is the story of a struggling young working-class couple, Laurel and Jim. Laurel, played by Liz Sharpe, is pregnant with the couple's first child, and at the start of the play, we see her fending off the ministrations of a well-meaning but suffocating mother, Celeste (Cecelia Wingate). Jim (played by Linder) seems like a good guy. That's the setup. Before long, though, it becomes clear that Jim might not be the father of this baby. Perchance Laurel has had a relationship with an African-American man.

What to do? Could any couple survive such a betrayal?

In part, Linder is writing about love, error and forgiveness, but given that Jim not being the father of this child presumably will be obvious, he also is writing about race, even as he is not specifically writing about race. And he's writing about class, which doesn't always pivot along a racial axis.

Linder has the benefit here of a stellar world-premiere production, a combining of efforts by Linder's New Colony and the Definition Theatre Company, a quite new, proudly diverse ensemble of young actors. It's directed by Definition's Tyrone Phillips, whose work I was seeing for the first time. It's an impressive effort — Phillips' cast achieves a very striking level of conversational reality and, better yet, features a trio of blistering female performances.

These include rich work by Kiki Layne, who plays the furiously empowered wife of the baby's father, and by Wingate, whose Southern mother is totally and utterly believable, without so much a hint of the condescension you often find in storefront depictions of working-class Southerners. Phillips has scored the show richly, using a shrewdly chosen variety of blues and country music and texturing the comings and goings from Jim and Laurel's modest home, which is beautifully designed by John Wilson.

But this show belongs to Sharpe, whose performance surely will be remembered among the best of the year, even though it's only January. Sharpe is unsentimental and thoroughly in touch with the unvarnished nature of Laurel's character. The fascinating thing here is that Laurel has made a mistake, clearly, but has found therein a force of self-empowerment. That's the complex nub of the play and Sharpe makes that work beautifully. You care deeply about her.

I'm not convinced Linder needed to be in his own play — were he not, he might have had more time to remove some of the woolly repetition that creeps into Act 2. But his acting is skilled and, as with Sharpe's Laurel, you find yourself quite strikingly invested.

"Byhalia, Mississippi" actually premiered in several small theaters at once Monday night, in cities including Toronto, Charleston, S.C., Los Angeles and others. I wonder if any of those other productions were as good as the one at the Den Theatre in Chicago — a show that was a very fine kickoff to a new year of Chicago theater.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

"Byhalia, Mississippi" - 3.5 stars

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