Head of Passes: Theater review by Adam Feldman
For Phylicia Rashad, the role of Shelah, the woe-drenched bayou matriarch in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes, may seem like a gift from the heavens. In the first act, Rashad presides with wise, God-fearing forbearance over a fractured family that has gathered to celebrate her birthday, unaware that she’s mortally ill. (In a retro touch, she coughs blood into a handkerchief.) In the second—when Shelah faces the sudden loss of everything she has held dear—the actress has the stage to herself for nearly half an hour, stranded on an island in her own flooded home, arguing with her Maker amid a crisis that draws heavily on the Book of Job, with shades of King Lear and Greek tragedy.
Rashad bites into this monologue and chews the hell out of it, yet it’s still a bit tough to digest. Tina Landau’s production, which has a impressive set by G.W. Mercier, is beautifully assembled; McCraney’s rich, flavorful dialogue rushes out compellingly from the persuasive cast of eight, and snags just when it should. (Alana Arenas, as Shelah’s junkie daughter, is stunningly raw.) McCraney is a huge talent, and the play is certainly worth seeing. But the realistic family-reunion half has only a tenuous connection with the outrageous misfortunes later on. Shelah may be Job, but Head of Passes offers no God to explain her calamaties. She’s wrestling with her playwright.—Adam Feldman
Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Tina Landau. With Phylicia Rashad. Running time: 2hrs 10mins.
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