Chicago Theater Review: HEAD OF PASSES (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 14, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Head of Passes" at Steppenwolf, Chicago

YOU GOTTA HAVE FAITH

The adventurous playwriting of Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the successful “Brother/Sister Plays” (In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, and Marcus), is the reason he is Steppenwolf’s newest ensemble member. Now comes the fervently Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Head of Passes" at Steppenwolf, Chicagomeant Steppenwolf Theatre Company world premiere Head of Passes, directed by Tina Landau. The play, McCraney’s African-American version of the Book of Job, takes place in its title setting: The moving marshlands at the confluence of the Mississippi River delta. Set in the “distant present,” it presents a house not meant to stand, a family manse now presided over by widow Shelah. Her imminent misfortunes will rival those of Job, the Bible’s most famous victim, whose faith is tested by the Devil and, despite unspeakable adversities, remains unshaken.

Accompanied by an ultimately destructive downpour on this Louisiana wetland, the first act depicts an inconclusive birthday party in which Shelah reunites with her troubled clan – her feuding sons Aubrey,  Spencer and Creaker (Glenn Davis, James T. Alfred and Ron Cephas-Jones), her thievish and abused daughter Cookie (Alana Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Head of Passes" at Steppenwolf, ChicagoArenas) and her grandson (Kyle Beltran). We also meet her good-hearted friend Mae (ebullient Jacqueline Williams) and her white doctor and family familiar (Tim Hopper), who’s worried about Shelah’s precarious health.

The small talk that fills the first act is retroactively diminished by the elegiac valedictory of the second act passion play. Here God dumps a shitload of misfortune on poor Shelah, presumably to see if she can take it. Guided by her own gospel of acceptance – the product of massive resignation to what she can’t control and dare not explain – Shelah can take it, for what that’s worth, in 2013.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Head of Passes" at Steppenwolf, ChicagoAfter yesterday’s opening, it seemed crystal clear that McCraney imagined or actually wrote this play backwards, first writing Shelah’s climactic final soliloquy and conversation with a construction worker (Chris Boykin) who helps her find her faith (Boykin had previously played an angel who pronounced doom on Shelah and her clan). Ultimately, Head of Passes plays and feels as though McCraney worked forward in the play’s chronology to reach that ending. So, the further you get from that ending (in other words the entire first act and half of the second), the more inconsequential the play seems, so much padding and filler, marking time until Shelah can suffer solo and in splendor.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Head of Passes" at Steppenwolf, ChicagoGiven the magnificent Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s bravura performance as Shelah, which melds Mother Courage with Mother Teresa, it’s easy to overlook the mind-boggling trust in providence to which she testifies and to simply bathe in the reflected glow of so much hard-won holiness. The drama is billed as an “an interrogation of faith,” but it’s no Book of Mormon – meaning McCraney’s answer is as smug, safe and serene as any sermon delivered to a contented and drowsy congregation. Besides this tour de faith, there’s also a peculiarly Steppenwolf payoff – the first-act finale in which the two-story house cracks open and slumps into a pit (design by David Gallo). Even if McCraney addresses the failings in the writing and concept of this world premiere, you will likely not see such an amazing set in future productions. As for this outing, if you’re ardently attached to the Book of Job, you will not mind Head of Passes half as much as I did. Yes, I felt the pain. But redemption? Not at all.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Head of Passes" at Steppenwolf, Chicagophotos by Michael Brosilow

Head of Passes
Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago
scheduled to end on June 9, 2013
for tickets call 312-335-1650
or visit http://www.Steppenwolf.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater,
visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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