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Head of Passes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Phylicia Rashad
Photo by Joan Marcus

The greatest feat of magic—okay, the only one—in Tarell Alvin McCraney's play Head of Passes, which just opened at The Public Theater, is its making you an integral part of the land on which the show is set. That would be the mouth of the Mississippi River, specifically where it meets the Gulf of Mexico, and which, a program note kindly reminds us, is being reclaimed by the ocean at an alarming rate. And in watching Tina Landau's production, you too will feel as though you're being consumed by and thrust back into the natural primal order of things, although not through the writing or anything related to it, but rather by its uncompromising, take-no-prisoners star, Phylicia Rashad.

With Shelah, a decaying matriarch who is determined to remain in the decaying Head of Passes home her deceased husband long ago built, Rashad has found a remarkable vehicle for channeling and unleashing a tsunami of emotions the intensity has heretofore been rare even in her accomplished stage work. Titanic though her turns in recent plays and musicals as diverse as August: Osage County, Bernarda Alba, Gem of the Ocean, and A Raisin in the Sun have been, even they failed to hint at the bottomless well of resources from which she draws upon in creating this woman of ferocity and faith, who is tested beyond her darkest imaginings.

Rashad's Shelah indeed seems to live everywhere and everything at once. A warm family woman of all-consuming adoration for her children. The hearty matron who's still resolutely in control despite the house that's literally collapsing in around her. The frail patient who ignores her doctor's wishes, to the point where standing up or sitting the wrong way can cause her to buckle over in uncontrollable fits and spit up blood. And, perhaps foremost, the dedicated Christian whose trust in God is sacrosanct, who truly puts Him before herself and her children, but who, after stumbling into a wave of unspeakable tragedies, nonetheless finds that He—and, by extension, herself—must be openly questioned.

There is, however, no contradiction to be found within these scraps of competing personality. Shelah's resounding love for her admittedly imperfect husband has her locked in place, as does her belief that God won't let her down when she most needs Him. Her smothering adoration for her two sons and one (almost) daughter leads her to embrace and alienate them in equal measure, and to defy her charge to put her affairs in order before it's too late (which it quite nearly almost is). And though she gets progressively weaker over the two hours we spend with her, Shelah soldiers on because she must: It isn't within her makeup to let go or give in. There is only one fight, and she will fight it to the very end.

Armed with this unshakable certitude as her character's core, Rashad yanks you along into Shelah's quietly, dangerously deluded world, right up until the astounding finale, a 20-minute pair of monologues during which the dying woman confronts her Savior-tormentor head-on, as she's all but poised to figuratively and literally sink into the Mississippi herself. Rashad's immersion within Shelah is riveting, and the rage she wields while waging that battle profoundly chilling in its unvarnished honesty. This is a performer who, like the person she's playing, holds nothing back, and each of her mutterings, moans, sobs, and screams during this battle royal defines the boundaries, with fiery precision, of the most crushing of personal crises.

If you've ever experienced one yourself, you'll shrink from the recognition of the raw, corrosive impact Rashad depicts. If you haven't, you'll gasp at her Shelah's powers of withstanding it. In any case, her tirade is explosive, harrowing, and cathartic, as only the best theatre can be. Alas, it's only a part of Head of Passes, which otherwise fails to match these stunning heights.

Part of the problem, as you may have intuited, is that Shelah's story is based on the Old Testament's Book of Job, in which God forced one man to endure a bevy of crippling trials to gauge his devotion. (If you're familiar with the book, you have an idea of what Shelah must go through.) But if Job makes scriptural and spiritual sense, and encourages exploring any relationship with God (and the demands we make of Him) in compelling, life-changing ways, they don't in and of themselves result in compelling, life-changing drama. Laid out onstage, without the deeper Biblical context behind it, Shelah's suffering takes on the quality of a highbrow snuff film, and eventually becomes extravagant in its awfulness.

That's not the point of even what McCraney has done, of course, but he's fallen considerably short of justifying the rest of it, too. Shelah is the sole developed character—really, the sole character at all—and stripping her of her humanity and womanhood has little impact on us when none of her losses are particularly concrete. There's no mistaking, for example, the general faults of Shelah's sons—Aubrey is hot-headed and Spencer is prone to taking unnecessary risks—but we witness them in fleeting snatches that aren't sufficient for building to the required climax. Shelah's sort-of surrogate daughter, Cookie, is woven so indifferently into the action that McCraney spends more time using her for laughs than imbuing her with crucial, flesh-and-blood detail.

The actors playing these roles (respectively, Francois Battiste, J. Bernard Calloway, and Alana Arenas) are in no way to be faulted, nor are John Earl Jelks and Kyle Beltran as the ever-bickering father and son serving at the birthday party that's the (limp) catalyst for the plot, Robert Joy as Shelah's impatient and barely socially adept doctor, or Arnetia Walker as Shelah's confidante; they all labor tirelessly to round out the edges of these wispy people. So does Landau, who's staged things aggressively on an ever-surprising and ever-imploding ramshackle set (by G.W. Mercier). But there isn't much of the periphery for anyone to work with, and, when you get right down to it, even Shelah's faith is, at best, a side issue until well into Act II.

It's all the more impressive, then, that Rashad has not just made Shelah multidimensional, but granted her a dangerous depth. There's nothing contained, nothing safe about her: Shelah lives forever on the edge, and through her portrayal Rashad makes sure that you understand exactly what that means. Accept her, reject her, love her, hate her, help her, leave her alone—the one thing you can't do is ignore her. She puts every part of herself on display, all the time, so you must confront the threat, the promise, and the hope (sometimes in bloom, sometimes withered) she represents. Doing so can be unsettling, even terrifying, but with Rashad at the center of Head of Passes, that part of this unsteady evening is never less than a joy.

Fair warning: During your time together, Shelah may well swallow you up just as the water is her land. But when you see how real and complete she is, there will be nowhere on Earth you'd rather be.

Head of Passes
Through April 24
Public Theater - Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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