|Phylicia Rashad and company. Photo: Joan Marcus|
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Tina Landau
The Public Theater
By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About?
Shelah's (Phylicia Rashad) family reunites to celebrate her birthday and to save her from the leaking roof of her home on a stormy night in Mississippi, at the mouth of the mighty river known as Head of Passes, where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. But instead of celebration, the night brings a tempest of tension, heartbreak and despair. Only a deep faith will bring Shelah through this terrible night inspired by the biblical book of Job.
Dr. Anderson ( Robert Joy) shows up and urges Shelah to share some unhappy news about her health, but the matriarch wants to be able to tell her family in her own way. she has another priority: reconcilation between sons Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway ), Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and their half sister, Cookie (Alana Arenas), the illegitimate daughter of Shelah's deadbeat husband who brought her home one day and insisted that his wife raise her.
Shelah is hoping her children will take over the home where she used to run a business (we presume a Bed and Breakfast) and live there together in harmony where Cookie's little boys can run and play. Right now, their situation is less than safe as Cookie runs with an unsafe crowd as part of her drug-using life.
Hopes for a happy reunion don't go as planned, however, with conflict between friends/servants tipsy Creaker Johnson (John Earl Jelks) and his wannabee-singer son, Criar (Kyle Beltram) errupting, Specer injuring himself while trying to stop the roof from leaking gallons into the living room and coughing fits robbing Shelah of her breath. Money matters also cloud the gathering: Shelah forgives a debt owed her by friend Mae (a humorous Arnetia Walker) and Cookie doesn't want to stay for the party. She just wants some cash and when she thinks Shelah has denied her request, she robs the woman who loved her like a daughter with horrible consequences for the entire family.
What Are the Highlights?
Taut direction by Tina Landau keeps our attention focused.
Phylicia Rashad is at the top of her game, turning n the most powerful performance I have seen her give. She gets the whole "faith under pressure" thing and we are amazed by her strength and ability not to curse God (as Job does not do in the bible story, despite losing everything: his heath, his wealth and his family). Her prayers are heart-felt, her performance full of emotion and grace. Look for some award nominations here.
The set by G.W. Mercier is amazing, showing the former grandeur of the house, its destruction and the dilapidated ruins, a flooded metaphor of Shelah's life.
Tarell Alvin McCraney's script is compelling and more engaging than his Brother/Sister Plays, which also ran at the Public. He doesn't try to recreate the story of Job, but borrows inspiration from it to write a study on suffering and faith. At the play's start, trying to figure out whether potato salad which wasn't refrigerated right away is the biggest concern. The significance of worrying about the trivial is not lost on us as the family soon discovers that all can be lost in the blink of an eye. When that happens, will out faith be strong enough to see us through?
What are the Lowlights?
Some confusion about how Creaker and Criar fit into the picture (and even who is who for a bit). There's a minor subplot involving Dr. Anderson's relationship with Shelah, but it isn't really explored.
Well, the tale is kind of a bummer, particularly if you know the story of Job. For those less biblically versed, it still is a bummer, but you won't see it coming.
The play, a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, probably would be better trimmed a bit and presented as a one-act instead of breaking two hours with an intermission.
Head of Passes has been extended through May 1 at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 and 7:30 pm; (No performance on Sunday, April 17 at 7:30 pm). Tickets start at $60: www.publictheater.org; 212-967-7555; Box Office.
Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter; Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; Wig and Hair Hesign by Robert-Charles Vallance.