By Donna Herman
HEAD OF PASSES at the Public Theater is not a new play, and Tarell Alvin McCraney is not a novice playwright. This production is a collaboration with The Berkeley Repertory Theatre where it was mounted in the spring of 2015. Previously, it debuted at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago in 2013. In all these iterations, Tina Landau, a frequent collaborator of Mr. McCraney’s (and no novice herself) has been at the helm as director. The play has been taken to task by reviewers in both Chicago and California for structural issues. But if you love the game, there are reasons you go, even if it doesn’t look like your team’s gonna win this particular series. You sit it out until the last out at the bottom of the 9th, hoping against hope that the team will pull off a miracle that seems more distant with each passing moment.
The setting is Head of Passes, Louisiana in “the distant present” where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico,. And where the sea has been taking back the coastline for over a century. In a leaky house clearly destined for doom, Shelah (Phylicia Rashad), the matriarch of a fractured family, is ill and trying to hide it to bring her children back together. She’s an intensely devout woman, but there’s a storm raging outside that we can tell bears no good will from above. Act one is a fairly standard kitchen sink drama. We are introduced to the main characters; Shelah, her eldest son Aubrey (Francois Battiste, who also played the role in Berkeley), who is a confident, brash, domineering type has organized a surprise birthday party for his mother. Then there’s Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway), the underachieving younger son who can never do anything right, and Cookie (Alana Arenas, who created the role at Steppenwolf) the adopted daughter Shelah loves like her own, but who is a junkie and has become estranged from them.
Unfortunately, during the first act there are as many extra characters as there are family members. There’s a lot of buzz, chatter and exposition about who everyone is, and some fine comic moments. But it’s all a distraction from the family and what they feel. And how it got to be that way. Ultimately we get so involved trying to figure out who these extraneous people are and how they relate to the family that we never come to care for the family. I can’t fault the actors here. They get the most out of what they’re given. Phylicia Rashad does her best with a character we struggle to understand. We figure out that she’s sick and that her late husband was not a nice man. He pawned off his daughter by another woman, Cookie, on Shelah to raise. Which she says she did with love and acceptance. But we don’t really know how she felt about her life or her husband in those days. Or any day. Every time we think we are going to, some minor character interrupts. The only time we’re really moved in the first act, and that we learn about the inner life of the family in a meaningful way, is when Cookie (Alana Arenas) shows up. Alana Arenas does an outstanding job as Cookie, because mercifully, Mr. McCraney has done the character justice in the script. We feel and understand Cookie’s pain, desire, frustration and determination to keep her sons out of the family home. Despite Cookie’s addiction, her vulnerability and the reasons behind it endear her to us. If only we had that glimpse into Shelah, Aubrey and Spencer.
In the second act, when Shelah becomes a parable for Job and everything in her life is lost, the play morphs into another style entirely – magical realism – as she bargains and barters with God. This is where the big questions get asked by the playwright and the audience is rewarded for sitting through the first act. Most of the second act is a powerful, tour de force monologue by Shelah. It’s unfair that we aren’t weeping at the end of it, but that’s not her fault. Ms. Rashad has laid it all out and left it on the stage. Unfortunately, the play hasn’t set us up to care enough to cry. It’s three strikes for this play, coach. Let’s put it to rest and concentrate on the upcoming season. You’ve got a fine team and we know you can hit it out of the park next time.
Head of Passes – Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Directed by Tina Landau
WITH: Alana Arenas (Cookie), Francois Battiste (Aubrey), Kyle Beltran (Crier), J. Bernard Calloway (Spencer), John Earl Jelks (Creaker Johnson), Robert Joy (Dr. Anderson), Phylicia Rashad (Shelah), and Arnetia Walker (Mae).
Scenic Design by G.W. Mercier; costumes by Toni-Leslie James; lighting design by Jeff Croiter; sound design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen; wig & hair design by Robert-Charles Vallance; production stage manager, Lori Lundquist; stage manager, Alex H. Hajjar. Presented by The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis Artistic Director; Patrick Willingham Executive Director. At the Newman Theater opening March 28th & running through Sunday, April 17th. 212-967-7555. http://www.publictheater.org