From Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to August: Osage County, a gathering at the paternal home in the face of impeding death of the de facto head of the family has long laid the groundwork for searing drama and gasp-inducing revelations. Taking the Bible’s Book of Job as inspiration, Tarell Alvin McCraney sets out to write his own take on this tried and true dramatic formula with Head of Passes, now playing at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. While McCraney perfected the three-act structure with Oscar-winning lyrical brilliance in Moonlight, here he falls short with a play that stops, stutters, and splutters its way to its conclusion.
The story follows Shelah (Phylicia Rashad), an aging matriarch with a terminal cough of indeterminate origin, as she gathers her children at her home located in the titular Head of Passes, the place where the Mississippi River branches into the Gulf of Mexico. Trouble brews from the first moments where Shelah addresses the Lord and her house begins to leak with water from an impending storm. Much like a Chekhov smoking gun, we know at some point that leaky roof and all its attendant metaphors are going to come crashing into Shelah’s living room. That in itself is a well-executed bit of stage trickery, enhanced by the superb and incredibly realistic set design of G.W. Mercier ,who successfully transitions us from a cozy Florida home literally leaking its secrets to a parable of hurricane carnage.
But the play often fails to find its footing and feels bogged down by its own weight – the first act is a swift comedy in broad strokes, the typical humor of a family drama with clashing relatives who have outsized personalities. It’s dotted by dramatic revelations that portend a larger tragedy to come, all of which unravels in stunning succession at the start of the second act. The trouble is, once the trauma and truth hit Shelah, we are left with her alone on stage, monologue-ing with and haranguing her cruel (or perhaps, absent) God. Rashad gives a harrowing, tour-de-force performance throughout these closing speeches, which have rightfully earned her and the character comparisons to Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Unfortunately, though, we weary of her interrogation of God long before she does. It’s difficult not to ponder how much more effective the play might be if it were a swift 90 minutes sans intermission that asked the same questions without demanding the audience go along for a marathon of abstract spiritual essentialism. Because an unfortunate side effect of this structuring is that the majority of the acting ends up coming off as overwrought – the actors are asked to toe an impossibly delicate balance and, as a result, often veer into histrionics.
However, Jacqueline Williams as Mae, a kindly and blustering aunt, and Kyle Beltran as Crier, a helpmate with familial attachments in the home, deliver particularly dexterous and interesting work. Williams has sterling comedic timing, which she can turn on a dime into genuine concern and care for all those around her. Beltran, whose Crier often acts as the Greek messenger in the proceedings, manages to convey palpable rage, heartbreaking vulnerability, and steely devotion in his brief scenes – of everyone, his work is the most fragile, underplayed, and nuanced.
This is the fourth production of Head of Passes, having previously played the Steppenwolf in Chicago in 2013, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2015, and the Public Theatre in New York this past spring. So, it’s likely it has settled into its final structure and style at this point under the repeated tutelage of director Tina Landau — yet, it could benefit from further rejiggering. The play asks audiences to take themselves to church in its exploration of faith and its limits, but in doing so, discovers and unsuccessfully pushes against the bounds of our willingness to probe these questions when all it involves is seemingly shouting into the void. B-