By apropst on Mar 29, 2016 | In ATW Reviews
Phylicia Rashad and Francois Battiste in Head of Passes
A deeply religious woman's faith gets rocked to its core in Tarrell Alvin McCraney's Head of Passes, a concurrently engrossing and uneven new play that opened last night at the Public Theater.
McCraney transports theatergoers to a spot in the south where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico in “the distant present” to tell the story of a family whose individual and collective lives are at myriad crossroads. The clan has gathered for a surprise birthday celebration for matriarch Shelah (Phylicia Rashad), whose devoutness has allowed her to weather a host of problems in her life. Combined with her iron fist and keen will she has also made sure that almost everyone around her, including adult children, have a combination of respect, fear and love for her.
Her eldest son, Aubrey (an excellently appealing and simultaneously offputting Francois Battiste), has learned a thing or two from his widowed mother and is the favored child among her brood. He is also, audiences learn, a smooth operator and learned valuable lessons from his father, and one reason for the gathering is his interest in having his mother sell the large boarding house that her husband built to house and entertain workmen from nearby oil rigs.
Sheila’s middle child Spencer (sweetly played by J. Bernard Callaway) has never enjoyed the same sort of position in the family and her youngest, Cookie (an intense Alana Arenas), struggles with drug addiction and for all intents and purposes has the position as the family outcast.
To say that bringing these three together, along with Shelah’s doctor (Robert Joy), an old family friend, Mae (Arnetta Walker) and a feuding father and son (John Earl Jelks and Kyle Beltran) who work for Shelah makes for a rocky evening would be an understatement. McCraney has given almost all of the characters significant secrets to bear, and during the course of the night – a very rainy one at that – most are revealed, and the party ends in a shambles with Shelah, whose health is faltering, near collapse.
For this first half of Passes audiences might consider it to be a Southern riff on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard or similar dramas in which families cope with their legacies and their downfalls, but after intermission, McCraney, who infused his Brother/Sister Plays with African mysticism, takes the play in a new direction, one in which Shelah must confront her God and the destinies of her children. In many ways, it becomes almost akin to a Greek tragedy as Shelah rages against the entity into which she has put her faith and in whom she has found strength.
It’s the bifurcation of the piece that makes the production both intriguing and unsatisfying. Despite solid direction from Tina Landau, a superlative physical production (G.W. Mercier’s set is a marvel of leaky rural comfort that transforms impressively), and fine performances, the two halves of Passes never completely feel as if they belong together.
Such complaints, however, can be put aside for one reason alone: Rashad’s bravura performance. Shelah, intrinsically, is a woman who can quickly shift from being kind and charming to gruff and demanding in the blink of an eye, and Rashad navigates each hairpin turn in the woman’s demeanor with terrific precision. Further when Shelah begins to rage, Rashad becomes, by turns ferocious and placating, and it’s in these moments that her fiery and fearless performance rivets, and though the path to Shelah’s final moments of self-awareness and acceptance proves to be a far from smooth one, Rashad’s exquisite performance makes Head of Passses unquestionably compelling.
---- Andy Propst
Head of Passes plays at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). For more information and tickets, visit: publictheater.org.
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