In Head of Passes, Phylicia Rashad portrays Shelah, a woman so religiously devout she objects to Deviled eggs. Her faith is tested in the Public Theater’s well-acted, richly atmospheric production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, which is inspired by the Book of Job. But the audience’s faith is also tested, in several ways.
The Head of the Passes is the name of wetlands in Louisiana where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, a rapidly eroding area that’s nearly uninhabitable, as we’re told in the program, because of “its isolated location and turbulent landscape.” But Shelah inhabits there nonetheless, in a big old house that was once a bed-and-breakfast where she raised three children. Now she is a widow and the house is in disrepair, a special headache on a stormy day like today. “I got as wet walking through here as I did out there,” says Aubrey (Francois Battiste), one of her sons, as he enters the house.
Today is also Shelah’s birthday, and her friends and family gather for a surprise birthday party. The first act introduces the seven vivid characters who visit Shelah, highlighting their familiarity with one another; even their frequent (and frequently humorous) bickering seems warm. “I love him like a bunion,” Shelah’s friend Mae (Arnetia Walker) says about Creaker (John Earl Jelks), an old neighbor who’s been hired to cater the party, along with his semi-estranged son Crier (Kyle Beltran.)
It doesn’t take long to learn that each individual has problems, especially Cookie (stand-out Alana Arenas), Shelah’s stepdaughter, a drug addict. But what comes through strongest is how much Shelah is guided by her religious beliefs in every relationship. She is patient with her two sons, although she wishes Aubrey didn’t take the Lord’s name in vain; she tries to coax Creaker and Crier to make peace with one another; she tells Mae that she doesn’t want back the money she lent her; she welcomes her stepdaughter Cookie with affection, and tries to explain away why Cookie’s father (Shelah’s husband) left her out of his will, promising to make up for it.
The only anger she expresses is with the unexpected arrival of Dr. Anderson (Robert Joy.) Shelah is seriously ill and has not told her family. She refuses to be treated, despite her doctor’s entreaties:“….we can look at ways,” the doctor says, “we may find ways to make life….”
Shelah interrupts, and what she says illustrates one of the playwright’s gifts – a poetic heightening of credible everyday conversation:
“Find ways? You got ways? You holding keys
to life and death? What pocket you hiding ‘em
in? Tell me, Doctor Anderson, Show me now?
That’s pride, there. Got learning of some earth and
acids and feel you know the summons of sunrise….”
But for all the problems woven into the first act, there is an abruptly darkened change in tone when her house comes crashing down, literally. Kudos to G.W. Mercier’s set design, which gives a new meaning to “creative destruction” and is reason enough to see this show.
The crash is also metaphorical – and metaphysical. (That the play is set in “The Distant Present” hints at the promise of something more other-worldly than we initially encounter.) In rapid succession, Shelah learns of one catastrophe after another. The ending of Head of Passes turns into a long monologue, Shelah’s conversation with God, a challenge for any actress – and, frankly, for any audience. Phylicia Rashad — a veteran of nine Broadway productions whom theatergoers long have seen as far more versatile than was evident in her role as Clair Huxtable– is up to the challenge.
Attentive listeners might feel rewarded with clues to Shelah’s personal history laced with the dual strands of bitterness and self-doubt. Mothers may empathize with her search for concrete ways to blame herself for her children’s personalities and their fates. Those struggling with their own religious faith might get the most out of the ending, as will those smitten by this major voice of the American stage (a MacArthur “genius” award winner whose work includes The Brother/Sister Plays and Choir Boy”), struck by the nearly Joycean rhythms:
Excuses, Shelah, excuse you, Shelah.
Good for nothing, because nothing left, nothings here, nothings save these nothings!
But others will miss the embracing, engaging crowd of characters from Act I almost as much as Shelah does.
Head of Passes is on stage at the Public Theater, (425 Lafayette Street, New York, N.Y. 10003, in the East Village) through April 24, 2016
Head of Passes, Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney . Directed by Tina Landau. Featuring Alana Arenas, Francois Battiste, Kyle Beltran, J. Bernard Calloway, Robert Joy, John Earl Jelks, Phylicia Rashad and Arnetia Walker. Scenic design by G.W. Mercier, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, Sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, wig and hair design by Robert-Charles Vallance, production stage manager Lori Lundquist. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell