by Lynn on January 17, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Storefront Theatre, 955 Bloor St. W, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Evan Linder
Directed by Jill Harper
Set by Christine Groom
Costumes by Holly Lloyd
Lighting by Simon Rossiter
Sound by Jeremy Hutton
Cast: Joshua Browne
Kyra Harper
Virgilia Griffith
Mazin Elsadig
Claire Armstrong.

There are so many red herrings in this oddly structured play that I thought I was in a fish store. As is always the case, the stalwart cast saves the day and carries it along.

The Story. Laurel (Claire Armstrong) and Jim (Joshua Browne) are married and expecting a baby. Their marriage has been rocking. But Laurel quickly forgives him any transgressions. Laurel’s hovering mother, Celeste (Kyra Harper), tries to support her but it’s hard. They too have had their moments. Celeste lives three hours away in Memphis and laments the drive but makes the sacrifice. Much is made of Jim and Laurel living in the Mississippi backwater called Byhalia. Laurel is a teacher on maternity leave. Jim used to be an assistant coach for a school team but now picks up odd jobs. The baby is born. It’s obvious that Jim is not the father because Jim and Laurel are white and the baby is black. Now it’s Laurel who is asking Jim for forgiveness and he can’t. He wants to know the name of the father. He assumes it’s his good friend Karl (Mazin Elsadig). Karl is wounded and insulted by this. Laurel admits who it is. The play goes from there, or rather doesn’t.

The Production. Christine Groom’s set of Laurel and Jim’s home certainly establishes the limited financial means of the couple. The carpeting is worn. The appliances in the kitchen are not modern or pristine. The kitchen opens onto the living room with a couch and a chair. I found it odd that the couch faces away from the kitchen, since Laurel has a conversation with her mother who is in the kitchen, and for much of it has to turn uncomfortably to face her mother behind her. I found that an odd directing choice of Jill Harper. There is also a roof structure off to the audience’s left. This structure juts into the playing area. The audience is on either side of the playing area with a few chairs along the far left wall, which means that for those scenes on the roof, the few audience members sitting by the left side wall will be watching the back(s) of the person or people on the roof. Odd again.

For what the play lacks in clarity it makes up for it in passionate, intense acting. I love the commitment of the cast. As Laurel, Claire Armstrong gives a fierce, passionate performance of a woman in conflict about what to tell her husband and what to keep from him. Her scene with her mother at the end of the play is shattering. You get a sense of what Laurel has had to endure from her mother, her husband, and her so called friends in that town. Yet she loves it there. It’s where she feels she belongs. That too comes out in Armstrong’s performance. As Jim, Joshua Browne portrays a man down on his luck, but still hoping to make a living. His emotions are on edge since he realizes that this much wished for baby is not his. He might be reckless. He might be lost in knowing what to do. He is still tightly connected to Laurel. Kyra Harper plays Celeste, Laurel’s hovering, ultra-religious mother. She wants the best for her daughter and doesn’t care if her daughter agrees or not. Celeste has her religion and that gives her confidence to be righteous. It’s a challenging part and Harper acquits herself well. She is a fierce mother, plain and simple.

Mazin Elsadig plays Karl, Jim’s somewhat mysterious friend. I say mysterious because after he is wounded that Jim accuses him of being the baby’s father, Karl disappears for much of the first act and re-appears in Act Two. This might suggest that Karl has more to tell than he lets on Still he is loyal to Jim. I just wish Elsadig would speak more clearly. Much of what he says gets lost in mumbling, Ayesha (Virgilia Griffith) is the wounded wife of the man who is the father of Laurel’s baby. She is a proud, social climbing woman who revels in telling Laurel she worked harder than Laurel to get where she is, has the life she wants and Laurel does not. Ayesha is a snob about her accomplishments; laments living in Byhalia; and is bitter at the lack of respect for some of the town’s leading black leaders who have passed away. As Ayesha, Virgilia Griffith has an impressive bearing and confidence.

Comment. Byhalia, Mississippi had simultaneous world premier openings on January 8th in Toronto, Chicago, Memphis and Charleston, along with staged readings of the play in Birmingham, Alabama, Boulder, Colorado, and Los Angeles, for some reason. Tonight, January 16 was the first opportunity I had to see it. The show was supposed to close Jan. 17, but the show has been held over until Friday, January 22.

Playwright Evan Linder tries hard to make Byhalia, Mississippi into an issue play. He tries to make it seems as if it’s about racial issues since Laurel is white and the father of her child is black. We never see the father. We only see his wife and she’s definitely not happy about the position her husband has put her in and she’s going to make him pay for it for a long time. Because Karl is gone for so much of Act 1 we might believe that he is more involved in this than he is. A red herring. He certainly is angry and wounded with Jim for thinking that he is the father. Another suggestion of racism. Accusations fly that come from no where. A character’s refusal to forgive and another character wanting it is just so much wheel spinning. It stops the play from progressing. There are lots of angry characters here with their own agendas. All they need is a better play than this one to express them. Terrific cast though.

Presented by Cue6 Theatre

Opened: January 8, 2016.
Closes: January 22, 2016. (held over to this date)
Cast: 5; 2 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hour, 15 minutes.

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