By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
A young woman uncomfortably awaits the birth of her baby in the company of her cranky mother and her unemployed husband – – unaware that the child’s arrival will cause immediate chaos in Evan Linder’s “Byhalia, Mississippi.”
Tensions are frayed between Laurel (Erika Cuenca) and her mother, Celeste (Virginia Wall Gruenert), as they await the arrival of the long overdue child. Celeste decides to go back home to Jackson, MS, but not until she unleashes a litany of complaints about her son-in-law Jim (Brandon Meeks), who, unbeknownst to mother and daughter, is listening to the argument over the baby monitor while smoking a joint on the roof of the house.
Note: While watching “Byhalia, Mississippi” one must pay close attention to the baby monitor. It’s an object of great importance. It’s a gun and a Deus ex Machina. Let’s call it Chekov’s baby monitor.
Jim had returned from job hunting when he discovered the aforementioned baby monitor. During his job search, Laurel learns that he approached her boss, the high school principal, looking for a position there.
Additional side note: While we never see the high school principal, his presence looms large over the show.
When the Caucasian couple finally gives birth, it’s immediately clear that Jim is not the father. Call Jerry Springer! Stat! Jim jumps to conclusions and accuses his best friend, Carl (Lamar K. Cheston), of the infidelity, pummeling him into submission on the living room floor.
Celeste reacts poorly to having an interracial grandchild. Then, there’s the surprise visit from Ayesha Price (Hope Anthony), the wife of the high school principal.
Director Ingrid Sonnichsen has a masterful touch, but she’s also blessed with a very talented cast.
Cuenca is magnificent as the young woman struggling to keep all the pieces of her life together in one pile. It’s a beautiful performance.
Gruenert is a powerful presence on the stage. Her Celeste is brash, loud and controlling, issuing ultimatums that go unheeded.
Meeks is delightful as the affable slacker who believes his whole future is shattered by the skin color a small baby. He has an engaging smile that, most likely, lets him get away with far too much.
Cheston and Anthony have smaller parts but each of them gets a chance to shine, and they shine brilliantly.
Anthony is in a tricky situation. It would have been easy for her character to fall into the angry black woman trope, but she finds nuances in the role.
Adrienne Fischer’s set is tribute to the height of white trash culture – if there can be such a thing. Think Roseanne Connor’s iconic living room, sans C.M. Coolidge’s “His Station and Four Aces” i.e. “Dogs Playing Poker.”
Linder tackles some hot button issues in “Byhalia, Mississippi,” but, basically, the show is about acts of forgiveness. Mark Twain once said, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” While “Byhalia, Mississippi” delivers some crushing blows, there is a pleasant release.
“Byhalia, Mississippi” runs from April 20 to May 5 at the Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA 15106. For additional information, click here.