The dilemma at the heart of Evan Linder’s play Byhalia, Mississippiis a knotty one: what should a man do when his wife gives birth to a child that is visibly – by virtue of its race – not his own?
If your Netflix habits are anything like mine, you might recall that this was also a central plot conflict of an episode of Call the Midwife. There, to the astonishment of the midwives, an elderly white husband – who both doted on his wife and also desperately wanted to be a father – simply accepted a black baby as his own with nary a blink of an eye. Here, Jim (Brandon Meeks) flies immediately into a nearly incoherent rage, first falsely accusing his best friend Karl (Lamar K. Cheston) of being the father, and then moving out of the house before his wife Laurel (Erika Cuenca) can bring the baby home from the hospital. But Jim’s fury about the infidelity is, as Laurel pleadingly points out, more than a bit hypocritical: he, too, had had an extramarital affair in the months before Laurel cheated on him, and she had forgiven him that betrayal. Why is he unable to do the same for her?
The play’s title helps provide the answer: Byhalia is a tiny town, one in which the baby’s race advertises loud and clear to everyone Jim has known his whole life that he has been cuckolded. The central question the play poses is: does Jim have it in him to forgive Laurel this public humiliation?
The story is told here in realistic fashion – the set (by designer Adrienne Fischer) authentically recreates the living room/kitchen area of a small, low-rent home, the kind of place that might have been built in the 70s and untouched since. A couch propped on cinder blocks and an old Lazyboy recliner signal Jim and Laurel’s current economic status, but the dialogue makes clear that they are both college-educated (she’s a school teacher, he played sports at Ole Miss), and you suspect that they’ve both moved down the socio-economic ladder a notch from their upbringing. As the play begins, Laurel’s mother Celeste (Virginia Wall Gruenert) has been visiting, overstaying her welcome while waiting for the baby to arrive. She’s a cantankerous, censorious woman, and when she comes back after the baby is born, her first instinct is to command Laurel to give the baby up for adoption rather than try to raise it herself in Byhalia. Also adamantly opposed to Laurel’s raising the baby in town is Ayesha (Hope Anthony), the wife of the baby’s father – like Jim, she, too, feels publicly humiliated by the baby’s existence. But Laurel stubbornly holds firm that the “plan” she has made – to raise a family with Jim – is the plan she’ll follow, even if it takes years to come to fruition.
Byhalia, Mississippi is a play that would sit comfortably among the offerings on the Lifetime channel – it has a soap opera quality to its conflicts and its (at times overwritten) dialogue, and the structure of the play is more televisual than theatrical. Moreover, its predictable ending felt, oddly enough, far less realistic or plausible than the resolution of that Call the Midwife episode, in which, as much as the husband’s willingness to be blind to his wife’s infidelity beggared belief, it at least remained consistent with his most deeply held desires. In Linder’s play, the characters’ flip flops feel thinly motivated and improbable. Nevertheless, director Ingrid Sonnichsen finds a core of authenticity for each character despite the script’s implausibilities, and the ensemble makes vivid their characters convoluted and painful paths towards offering – and accepting – forgiveness.