A CurtainUp Review
Head of Passes
By Elyse Sommer
If there's a hit or miss quality to McCraney's oeuvre, the misses tend to be the result of his intriguing use of atypical styles. In his Brother/Sister Plays (see links to McCraney play reviews below) the device of having the actors speak the stage directions before playing them out was interesting but ultimately a bit tiresome. In the current New York premiere of Head of Passes (also at the Public Theater and again expertly directed by fellow Steppenwolf colleague Tina Laundau), we see a shift from a first act in the style of a realistic dysfunction family drama to a Book of Job inspired existential second act. Thus the dysfunctional elements of this family also function on a larger scale in the form of portentous ecological disasters.
The program description of the time frame as "the distant past" clearly hints at the dual structure. The play's setting is the comfortably furnished interior and partial view of a Louisiana guest house in the Head of Passes (a real place) where the Mississippi river and the Gulf of Mexico meet. Shelah (Phylicia Rashad), the central character, no longer provides rooms and home cooked meals to the oil drillers in these wetlands who flooded the area (literally!). But she clings to it as firmly as to her faith. Having bought that house when few people of color could say "this piece of earth is for me" she's convinced that it will unite her children and heal painful wounds once she's gone.
While the play opens to the sound of torrential rain, the playwright uses a typical plot device — a surprise birthday party for Shelah — to fill the house with the people important in her life: The party's organizer, her youngest son Aubrey (an as always terrific Francois Battiste). . . her friend Mae (Arnetia Walker). . . the alliteratively named Creaker and Crier (John Earl Jelks and Kyle Beltran), a father and son whose constant bickering serves as a light-hearted passageway into the darker revelations that surface with the appearance of Shelah's other son Spencer (J. Bernard Callaway and their deeply troubled half-sister Cookie (Alana Arenas). There's also Dr. Anderson (Robert Joy), the only whi—te member of this all-around fine ensemble. The doctor's long and affectionate relationship with this family dates back to his delivering the boys. The doctor is as stubbornly determined to ease Sheilah's illness as she is to trust to her faith to see her through. While her illness is probably lung cancer, the first act's old-fashioned realism has her spitting blood into a hankie, shades of some black and white golden oldie movies.
I'll refrain from divulging surprise spoiling plot details, except to prepare you that act one ends with a gasp inducing change of scenery — a remarkable collaboration by the production's scenic, sound and lighting designers. That stormy first act finale takes us to the post-intermission segue into metaphysical territory and a debate in which Shelah questions God's reasons for making good people suffer in a lengthy monologue.
This is hardly a problem free play. That final monologue goes on way too long though it's certainly a triumph for Phylicia Rashad. But impressive as Rashad is and despite McCraney's easy to understand parallel between her Shelah and Job, her character's most extreme suffering comes off as somewhat rushed. The fact that it's more tell than show affects our ability to care deeply about her. The way she's pushed into the Job persona comes at the expense of a more sympathy arousing portrait of a mother facing unimaginable grief.
Still, there's no faulting Mr. McCraney's talent, imagination and courage to explore new forms and ideas — or the very fine production Head of Passes is getting at the Public's Newman Theater.
McCraney review links
Wigout inspired by the documentary Paris is Burning was McCraney's look into the drag house culture
Brothers Sisters Plays all parts of the trilogy presented at the Public in 2009
Choirboy an original play about an African-American student at a Southern prep school
Anthony and Cleopatra McCraney's take on Shakespeare