Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through June 9
Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s “Head of Passes,” which is enjoying a well-acted world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, explores the power of faith and prayer. Or the pitfalls, depending on the religious convictions, or lack thereof, viewers bring to it.
Inspired by the “Book of Job” and named for the ever-shifting marshlands at the mouth of the Mississippi River, ensemble member McCraney’s play focuses on the matriarch of a dysfunctional Louisiana family who loses everything and is pushed beyond endurance but ultimately sustained by her belief in God and an angel, even if the latter appears as a construction worker with a very common-sense message that brings her back to the real world. Or maybe her life-long submission to a higher power has blinded her to the evil right before her eyes and made her feel sinful for the wrong reasons, issues with which she wrestles as she grieves.
In either case, Shelah is a complicated woman, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce brings warmth, grace and emotional intensity to the role. We first see her on the porch of her former bed and breakfast, as her children and a few friends gather for a surprise birthday party, even though she never celebrates her birthday and doesn’t like surprises. We also learn pretty quickly, from the unexpected arrival of her physician, Dr. Anderson (Tim Hopper) – the only white character – that Shelah is gravely ill but hasn’t told her family. She’s refused treatment, too, believing that she’s ready to die and that the Angel (Chris Boykin) only she can see has come for her.
Directed by ensemble member Tina Landau, who also staged McCraney’s “The Brother/Sister Plays” at Steppenwolf, the first act unfolds pretty much like a naturalistic “kitchen sink” drama. Locals Creaker (Ron Cephas Jones) and his son Crier (Kyle Beltran until May 19, Jon Michael Hill thereafter) are on hand to cater the party, and friend Mae (Jacqueline Williams) enlivens the proceedings. Shelah’s sons Aubrey (Glenn Davis), the organizer and Spencer (James T. Alfred) show up shortly. The question of whether or not her adopted daughter Cookie (Alana Arenas), a drug addict, will put in appearance adds an air of anticipation, and when she does, her self-serving bad behavior is evident to everyone except the loving Shelah.
The other source of tension is that rain is pouring down (much like in Chicago as I write this), and the house is leaking like crazy. Attempts to stop, or at least slow, the flow of water only make matters worse, and when Aubrey and Mae implore Shelah to come stay with them, she refuses. The party soon breaks up, hastened by the discovery of a theft, and the house literally collapses from the rain.
The second act takes on a surreal tone, as messengers report one tragedy after another to Shelah. Amid the rubble of her home, she dons a dirty white choir robe and shaves her head, and addresses God in an impassioned guilt-ridden outburst that borders on insane. When a Construction Worker (Boykin) comes to get her to evacuate so the condemned building can be torn down, she mistakes him for the Angel. But maybe his is, in away, because his words help her let go of the past.
The problem with “Head of Passes” is that Shelah’s losses and suffering should be gut wrenching, but I found myself not feeling much of anything. The human dimension somehow takes a back seat to McCraney’s concerns with structure and symbolism.
The first act should offer a fuller picture of Shelah’s feelings for her children, especially her sons, and theirs for her, so that we can truly empathize with their fate and her reactions. I think the script may be more to blame than Bruce or Landau, but the vital connections somehow are lacking. There’s more of a sense of the relationship between Cookie and her adoptive mother, but that’s marred slightly by the fact that Arenas arguably looks and sounds too healthy to be a strung-out addict. In fact, the peripheral action at the party attracts the most attention, including discussion of a past falling-out between Shelah and Mae over money, Creaker’s arguments with Crier, Crier’s singing and Dr. Anderson’s dancing.
Not surprisingly, the visual highlight of the evening is the rather spectacular collapse of scenic designer Davis Gallo’s house amid a rousing storm created by lighting designer Scott Zielinski and sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, who are also responsible for the original music. Toni-Leslie James’ mix of formal and casual costumes manages to evoke the “distant present” of the setting, no easy task.
For me at least, the main failing of “Head of Passes” is that it comes across more as an intellectual exercise than as a fully realized, heartfelt drama.