'Head of Passes': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
John Earl Jelks, Arnetia Walker, Phylicia Rashad and Francois Battiste in 'Head of Passes'
Admirable in intent, even if it falters in execution.
5/1/2016

Phylicia Rashad stars as the matriarch of a family in southernmost Louisiana experiencing a crisis of faith in Tarell Alvin McCraney's contemporary spin on the Book of Job.

Gifted playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney turned heads when he was barely out of Yale School of Drama in 2007 with the first part of what was to become his remarkable Brother/Sister Plays trilogy. That poetic plunge into Louisiana bayou life drew from West African myth to imbue its gritty portrait of a world under spiritual, moral and physical siege with dream-like dimensions. McCraney travels farther south, to the mouth of the Mississippi River at the Gulf of Mexico, in Head of Passes, which provides a mighty role for Phylicia Rashad as the righteous sufferer at the center of this tempestuous parable inspired by the Book of Job.

Like The Brother/Sister Plays, the new work — developed by McCraney with director Tina Landau, first at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2013, and then last year at Berkeley Rep in this co-production with New York's Public Theater — is set in the "distant present." It's contemporary, yet informed by Old Testament ideas and theatrical instincts dating back to Greek tragedy. But more than the playwright's previous work, which includes the drag-ball extravaganza Wig Out and the gospel coming-of-age hymn Choir Boy, this ambitious though unbalanced drama owes something to one of McCraney's mentors, August Wilson. That's apparent both in the soulful realism and flavorful character detail of the enjoyable first act and the soaring soliloquy of the more challenging second.

The play begins as a domestic comedy-drama about the gathering of a clan of family and friends of widowed Shelah (Rashad) at the sprawling home where she now lives alone, a former bed and breakfast built on shifting marshlands lashed by storms and slowly being reclaimed by the sea. One such torrential downpour is unleashed as guests arrive for a surprise party celebrating an important birthday Shelah has forgotten. But she intends to use the occasion to inform her family of her illness, a terminal condition known only to Dr. Anderson (Robert Joy), for which she refuses treatment.

Shelah is a matronly type, warm but stern, given to staunch affirmations of her faith and vehement objections to unholy sentiments being expressed in her house. She refuses even to have deviled eggs served. With humor and a lively sense of personal history etched between the lines, McCraney draws Shelah's flinty interactions with those closest to her. The group includes her grown sons, the loquacious Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and his unreliable good-time brother Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway); her old friend Mae (Arnetia Walker), a boozy flirt who gets more raucous after a drink or two; and family employee Creaker (John Earl Jelks), summoned by Aubrey to serve at the party, along with his son Crier (Kyle Beltran). Also dropping in briefly is Cookie (Alana Arenas), Shelah's junkie stepdaughter from her late husband's extramarital relationship, whom she loves as if the troubled young woman were her own.

As the rain streaks the windows of G.W. Mercier's homey set, it also pours through the ceiling in worsening leaks that Creaker scurries about trying to catch with pots and tarps, while Spencer, who was supposed to get the roof fixed, is sent out in a futile attempt to patch the holes. Laughs are drawn from the increasing wetness of each new arrival, but there's also a quiet sense of foreboding, of a sanctuary under threat, that fuels Aubrey's entreaties to Shelah to come live with him on the mainland.

Shelah is furious at the doctor's arrival, insisting on sharing the news of her health in her own time. But she never quite gets to it, bargaining with God in her moments alone as she attempts to set things right. That means drawing her sons closer together, forgiving Mae a debt, trying to soothe the conflict between the wounded Crier and his unloving father, and offering Cookie money that she knows will be used not for her neglected boys but for drugs. She begs Cookie to move back to the house, ignoring the nagging awareness that its dark memories are what damaged her.

While the impressive stagecraft packs some surprises, in narrative terms it's inevitable that the house comes crashing down, its foundations sinking into the silt as its cratered flooring pools with water. Aside from a brief opening interlude, during which Creaker, Mae and the doctor — functioning like the messengers in the Book of Job — reveal Shelah's misfortunes and attempt without success to budge her from her breached fortress, the play's entire second act becomes an extended monologue.

Like Hecuba by way of Lear, Shelah rails at the heavens after learning of the tragedies that have occurred during the night. Denied the relief of death, she shakes off her frailty, clinging stubbornly to her beliefs while demanding to see and understand God's divine plan. But this seemingly indomitable woman gradually dissolves into desolate contemplation of the arrogant certainty of her faith and of her own human failings, left in the end with the unimaginable grief of her final word in the play: "Nothing."

Despite its conventional beginnings, this is another adventurous work from McCraney, pondering serious theological questions pertaining to the eternal, unanswerable mysteries of random punishment. But structurally, it's problematic. Although Rashad pours monumental anger and anguish into her sustained aria of pain, her performance ends up being more powerful in terms of technique than feeling. The play is unwieldy, its epic, elemental developments springing inorganically from the psychological realism of the setup. As Shelah wrestles with her suffering, alone and comfortless, Head of Passes becomes a freeform performance piece, a rambling discourse on faith unhitched from the careful character building of the first act. It neutralizes the emotional heft of the story's human losses.

The disharmony between the two acts may be irreconcilable. However, McCraney's distinctive dialogue ensures that the drama remains absorbing, and Landau directs the strong cast with a keen ear for the musical rhythms and idiomatic quirks of black Louisiana speech.

While Rashad supplies earthy gravitas throughout, an anchoring presence that lingers even in the brief stretches she's offstage, every character is vividly drawn. There's notable work from Beltran, embracing Crier's hurt as well as his resilience; Walker, salty and good-hearted; Joy, quietly moving as the white doctor; and Arenas, whose entrance brings some of the play's funniest moments before she reveals Cookie's agonized struggle to maintain her composure. It's the flaws of the play, not the performances, that diminish its impact.

Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Phylicia Rashad, Alana Arenas, Francois Battiste, Kyle Beltran, J. Bernard Calloway, John Earl Jelks, Robert Joy, Arnetia Walker
Director: Tina Landau
Playwright: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Set designer: G.W. Mercier
Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Presented by the Public Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

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