Head of Passes Review – a Powerful Play about Faith and Family

Steppenwolf Theatre presents the world-premiere of gifted young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s latest work, Head of Passes—a beautifully acted play that poses serious questions on faith and family. 

Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) prays in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Head of Passes by ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by ensemble member Tina Landau

Based on the Book of Job, Head of Passes tells the story of Shelah, a deeply religious African-american woman who brings fresh life to this ancient story of suffering and faith. The play is set in Head of Passes, where the Mississippi River divides into three branches and meets the Gulf of Mexico, in a time that playwright McCraney describes as the distant present.  Though the play is decidedly modern, this isolated setting in the delta, the near-by (but unseen) city that brings sorrow to Shelah and her family, and the biblical weather give the play an otherworldly feel.  As the character of Shelah suffers in silence from what seems to be a fatal illness, she herself inhabits a different reality from her family, in which time is fluid and she communicates with a ghostly figure that only she and the audience can see.

Mae (Jacqueline Williams), Crier (Kyle Beltran), Creaker (Ron Cephas Jones) and Dr. Anderson (ensemble member Tim Hopper) gather to celebrate Shelah’s (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) birthday (right to left)

Shelah and her two adult sons argue about the future of their house, a former bed and breakfast, that begins, slowly at first, to crumble around them.  While Shelah’s sons (played by Glenn Davis and James T. Alfred) try to convince her to sell the house and live with them on the mainland, and her estranged daughter (played by Alana Arenas) reveals a poisonous secret, Shelah holds ever more tightly to a past that was not of her choosing, and one whose tragedy she has tried her best to ignore even as it pulls her family apart.  Much later in the play, Shelah concedes, “I give up on these strange thoughts being left inside,” but by then there is no point in pretending. 

Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) tries to calm Cookie (ensemble member Alana Arenas)

The house in this play is central to Shelah’s struggle between holding on and letting go, and the set design is impressive.  During the first act, rain leaks through widening holes in the roof, soaking everyone who walks through the living room and providing several comedic moments.  When the rain becomes a storm of near-biblical proportions at the end of the first act, the house is battered and spectacularly collapses before our eyes.  In the play’s second act, our expectations for Shelah—that she will find a way to make peace among her children and prepare for the death that she seems so ready for—are turned on their heads.  Just as the storm reveals long-neglected structural weaknesses in the house, the tragedies that the storm brings to Shelah mean that a critical question of faith—if there is a reason why we suffer—is laid bare for her to confront.

Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) sleeps in front of what remains of her home after a storm

The second act of this play poses the questions of whether Shelah can escape the agony of losing everything and whether she can then free herself from a desperate search for why God has chosen to punish her.  In a departure from the Job story, Shelah’s salvation comes down to whether she is finally able to let go of the past and whether, instead of pleading with God, she can find a way to forgive herself. 

Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) is visited by an angel (Chris Boykin)

Cheryl Lynn Bruce, as Shelah, is a captivating presence on the stage, whether she is praying on her knees with disarming intensity or coyly asking the Angel to smile at her one more time.  The acting from the rest of the cast is also superb.  Thanks to beautiful writing by McCrandy, and expert directing by Tina Landau, Head of Passes manages to satisfy while still leaving some of the big questions questions unanswered.

Head of Passes is highly recommended. Head of Passes is playing at Steppenwolfs Downstairs Theatrethrough June 9, 2013.  Tickets and more information are available through the Steppenwolf website.

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