Matriarch has much to overcome in McCraney’s fervent new play
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticemail@example.com April 14, 2013 8:10PM
Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce, center) and (from left: Tim Hopper, Ron Cephas Jones, James T. Alfred, Jacqueline Williams and Glenn Davis) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of "Head of Passes." | Michael Brosilow photo
‘HEAD OF PASSES’
When: Through June 9
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Info: (312) 335-1650s; www.steppenwolf.org
Run time: 2 hours including one intermission
Updated: May 16, 2013 6:26AM
At the center of “Head of Passes,” the fervent, questioning play by Tarell Alvin McCraney that is now receiving its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, there is a house that can no longer stand, either literally or figuratively.
Built on the marshy land at the mouth of the Mississippi River from which the play takes its title, the house’s foundation is shifting, its roof is leaking and a storm is doing the rest. Yet nature is almost the least of the problem here.
As Abraham Lincoln once remarked: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” And though Shelah, the matriarch who for decades has fought off every vicissitude to keep this treasured home upright, is determined to expend her last breath and prayer to keep it intact, she now finds herself more mightily tested than ever. Facing her own mortality, and then quickly hit by by a tidal wave of human tragedy, she is hoping for some sign from God that he is watching. There are precious few indications this is the case. But like a black female incarnation of the Old Testament’s beleaguered Job, she is not one to lose her faith easily.
In “The Brother/Sister Plays,” McCraney’s earlier acclaimed work at Steppenwolf — which, like “Head of Passes,” was directed by Tina Landau — ritual held sway over reality. This time around, in a play set in “the distant present,” reality rules. And yet, against all odds, the spirit abides through language that bears echoes of August Wilson, as well as McCraney’s own early church days.
The reality here is that Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce, who truly carries the play on her shoulders, including an elaborate second act soliloquoy) has learned from her devoted white doctor (Tim Hopper) that she is gravely ill. So she has called together her grown children — Aubrey (Glenn Davis), Spencer (James T. Alfred), and Cookie (Alana Arenas), as well as a longtime friend, Mae (Jacqueline Williams) — to tell them the news in her own way, and to finesse some sort of peace among them. It also just happens to be Shelah’s birthday, something she generally tends to ignore. And on hand to help prepare the “surprise party” are Creaker (Ron Cephas Jones), and his wannabe performer son, Crier (Kyle Beltran, to be replaced by Jon Michael Hill after May 21), who have their own deeply stormy relationship.
If Shelah’s sons are far from perfect — Aubrey, her favorite, can be bossy, while Spencer is lazy — it is Cookie, something both less and more than her daughter, who is most problematic. Addicted to drugs, often homeless and by all indications an unfit mother to her own two sons, she shows up at the party only to get some money from the woman who raised her. (No more should be revealed here.)
The show’s first act finale is a stunner, with designer David Gallo’s set deconstructing in the most spectacularly engineered fashion imaginable. But then McCraney spends much of the second act piling on a sort of Shakespearean narration about all the horrors that have befallen Shelah’s children in the hours since they left the house, and some of the air goes out of the play.
Like Shelah herself, “Head of Passes” is saved by the character who is a mostly silent witness throughout the play. An angel? Perhaps, though he arrives in the guise of a construction worker — an impossibly handsome fellow (Chris Boykin) with a gentle soul and a megawatt smile who has come to oversee the demolition of the house. You can understand why Shelah is ready to accept salvation.