Pardon me, but what is “Byhalia, Mississippi” doing at the Kennedy Center?
It’s a decently engaging little five-character play, full of melodramatic incident, about a marriage falling apart amid infidelities and the birth of a child. The Kennedy Center itself is the play’s producer — an extreme anomaly these days in the drama department of the big arts box on the Potomac.
And that’s just it: Of all the recent dramatic work that could be supported, why does a minor, conventional potboiler merit this singular kind of showcase?
As directed by Kimberly Senior, Evan Linder’s comedy-drama is nicely composed and acted, especially by Caroline Neff as Laurel, a pregnant schoolteacher whose out-of-work husband, Jim (Jack Falahee), has cheated on her. Set in a sleepy burg south of Memphis, the play illuminates, through Laurel’s dilemma, the ways in which sexual betrayal and racial animus converge toxically, unleashing resentments and prejudices that destroy lifelong friendships.
Linder creates characters richly endowed with animosity: Aimé Donna Kelly in particular offers an incisive portrait of outrage barely under wraps as Ayesha, a mother of three who is not happy to learn the circumstances of Laurel’s pregnancy. And Cecelia Wingate, as Laurel’s seething mother, Celeste, could not feel more authentic if you learned that she was playing herself. Set designer Cameron Anderson’s rendering of Laurel and Jim’s house captures life in a barely-getting-by neighborhood of cinder block and plywood, an ambiance mirrored in Jen Caprio’s thrift-store outfits for the couple.
The tender loving care that has gone into the production in the Terrace Theater is all well and good, but as a one-off enterprise at the arts center it comes across as an oddity. In recent years the Kennedy Center has excelled at the deft resurrection of musicals in concert form, as demonstrated by this past season’s revivals of, especially, “The Music Man” and “The Who’s Tommy.” Plays, however — and more to the point, play projects originating in the Kennedy Center’s offices — are so rare as to feel practically vestigial to the institution’s mission. In a season of American plays incorporating regional flavors and topical issues, say, there might be some programmatic logic to “Byhalia, Mississippi” (a play, incidentally, that was handled sufficiently well in the summer of 2017 at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va.)
Anyone who loves theater has to be all for the Kennedy Center committing to becoming a serious platform for play development. But I’m skeptical. I’ve been disappointed too many times by its anemic efforts in this regard. A brief run of one play from the category of soap opera seasoned with social concern is not cause for celebration. It is merely a reminder of all the tougher assignments the venue should be tackling.
Byhalia Mississippi, by Evan Linder. Directed by Kimberly Senior. Set, Cameron Anderson; costumes, Jen Caprio; lighting, Jennifer Reiser; sound Mikhail Fiksel. About 2 hours 15 minutes. $25-$89. Through July 7 at Kennedy Center. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.