The play takes place at the Head of Passes, the Louisiana wetland delta where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, an area continually eroding into the sea. The setting is the now closed bed-and-breakfast establishment that Shelah ran with her late husband, which is far from town and now has few friends or family visitors. The occasion is Shelah’s birthday and her family has arranged a surprise party. While she does not appreciate all the fuss, she is glad that all of her three children will at last be under her roof once more. However, her happiness is short lived. The living room is leaking due to a terrible storm from a damaged roof that has gone unattended, and Dr. Anderson, her physician, puts in an unwanted visit. Shelah is terminally ill (we see her spitting blood into a handkerchief) and wants to be the one to tell her children in her own way along with her plan for the house which she sees as their legacy. She won’t take any drugs or medical procedures, leaving it all to her unbreakable faith in God.
McCarney’s plays tend to be untidy dramaturgically and Head of Passes is no exception. The first act plays like King Lear, while the second act retells the Book of Job for modern times. When Shelah’s children arrive, they prove to be one more trial. Oldest son Aubrey insists she give up the house and come live with him. Younger son Spencer wants to sell the house and land to a developer who has offered a great deal of money. And estranged, adopted daughter Cookie is a drug addict in need of money for a quick fix. Cookie has refused to bring her two sons: does she know something about this house that Shelah doesn’t? The guests also include Mae, a long-time confidante, who seems to be a fair weather friend, and Creaker, the comically complaining cook and a family retainer of long standing who has asked his estranged son Crier to help out with the party.
However, the rain and the storm never let up and during the intermission a cataclysm occurs, revealed in G.W. Mercier’s remarkable self-destructing set. The next morning as depicted in Act Two, Shelah has lost everything and reduced to a modern day Job, she elects to remain alone in her house as it falls down around her and the waters continue to rise. McCraney gives Rashad a 22-minute monologue in which she addresses God as to the trials that have beset her. This scene alone is worth the price of admission and the actress rises to great heights as she grapples with the decisions in her life which may have led her to this moment. She reaches a kind of catharsis by the final curtain.
However, the audience may not reach this same catharsis. McCraney’s message in this play is rather obscure. Is he simply saying that faith will get you through anything in life? Or that we are responsible for our own destinies by the choices we make? Is the play a metaphor for Hurricane Katrina or the damage done to the Mississippi by the Army Corps of Engineers? The realistic first half of the play gives way to the surrealistic second half, although the language is heightenedly poetic throughout. The drama is the stuff of tragedy but we learn too little of the family history to understand why they are being punished this way. In Greek and Biblical tragedy, we usually have the entire backstory to explain the events of the present tale.
The rest of the cast of eight is fine in underwritten roles. Francois Battiste and J. Bernard Calloway make an interesting contrast as the two sons who could not be more different. Alana Arenas is all nervous energy as the drug-addicted Cookie. As the loyal family retainer, John Earl Jelks is as cranky as he is caring, while Kyle Beltran as his disappointing son is all rebellious arguments. Robert Joy’s Dr. Anderson can’t keep his emotions for Shelah out of his slightest remark, while Arnetia Walker’s Mae seems to be both loving and two-faced. In this company, Rashad reigns supreme as the aging matriarch still in command of her faculties.
The remarkably realistic set is wonderfully lit by Jeff Croiter to create both fear and awe, as well as registering the passage of time in a short period. The sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen with its howling winds and torrential rain is truly frightening as it is meant to be. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes define the socio-economic levels of the various characters and are extremely revealing of the backstory we aren’t told.
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes is an advance over his earlier work seen in New York (The Brother/Sister Plays, Wig Out, Choir Boy) in its attempt to take on bigger themes and archetypes. In creating the role of Shelah, he has put on stage a magnificent role for an actress of tremendous gifts. Phylicia Rashad rises to Greek tragic heights required by Shelah’s plight. However, the meaning and message of the play remains obscure and tends to leave the audience outside of the play’s dramatic action. We watch mesmerized in horror as events unfold, but why they are happening and what is the underlying cause remains a mystery.
Head of Passes (extended through April 24, 2016)
The Public Theater in a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission