Head of Passes at Steppenwolf Theatre Company | Theater review

A devout woman is put through the wringer in Tarell Alvin McCraney's formally inventive, devastating spin on Job's trials.

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowCheryl Lynn Bruce in Head of Passes at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowCheryl Lynn Bruce and Alana Arenas in Head of Passes at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowCheryl Lynn Bruce and Tim Hopper in Head of Passes at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowJacqueline Williams, Kyle Beltran, Ron Cephas Jones, Tim Hopper and Cheryl Lynn Bruce in Head of Passes at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowKyle Beltran and Ron Cephas Jones in Head of Passes at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowTim Hopper, Ron Cephas Jones, James T. Alfred, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Jacqueline Williams and Glenn Davis in Head of Passes at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowChris Boykin and Cheryl Lynn Bruce in Head of Passes at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowGlenn Davis, James T. Alfred and Cheryl Lynn Bruce in Head of Passes at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowCheryl Lynn Bruce in Head of Passes at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

The latest collaboration between playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Tina Landau is directly reminiscent, in its unusual form, of McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays, seen at Steppenwolf in 2010. That work is a collection of three plays that can stand on their own, but thread many of the same characters throughout, informing each other in ways both direct and not. Though Head of Passes is very much a single piece, the sharp divide in McCraney’s approach before and after intermission makes it feel almost like two different plays about the same set of people.

The first act is a well-honed traditional ensemble piece, which sees friends and family gathering at a crumbling former bed and breakfast in the Louisiana marshlands to throw a surprise party for matriarch Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce). Only the pounding rain and leaky roof threatening to flood the living room, and the appearance of an angelic young man (Chris Boykin) only the devout Shelah sees, suggest the biblical proportions awaiting in Act II.

McCraney is loosely inspired by the Book of Job, and Shelah’s faith gets tested in a profound way as her friends deliver news of one calamity after another in the opening scene of the second act, the tone shifting subtly from realistic representation to allegorical. Things get downright surreal thereafter, as Shelah, abandoned to her insistent faith, literally debates with herself over her trust in God.

Time itself seems to telescope as Shelah struggles to hang on to a peace that passes understanding. It’s a deep, raw, painful depiction of grief by Bruce as a woman whose faith is a literal life force. And as McCraney cathartically suggests in Shelah’s salvation, even the tiniest human connections can contain the divine; sometimes, after all, there’s God so quickly.

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