In Head of Passes, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney strives to create a narrative of epic proportion, with only moderate success. Directed by Tina Landau at the Mark Taper Forum, the play still is worth seeing for the questions it poses, the finely tuned ensemble and the lead performance by Phylicia Rashad as a devout woman sorely tested by her God.
The title refers to the geographical point in Louisiana where the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico come together and where it’s impossible for crops to grow. The elderly Shelah resides in the house she shared with her now-deceased spouse, and the action takes place on her birthday, for which her sons Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway) have planned a surprise party. But a fierce rainstorm puts a damper on festivities in more ways than one; rain pours — not leaks — through the roof, and throughout the first act, Shelah’s family, friends and servants scurry about doing what they can to protect the property.
Shelah herself is distracted, for she harbors an awareness, as yet undisclosed, of her illness and imminent demise. She’s made a will and wants to share its contents with her three children, her daughter Cookie as well as her sons. Cookie (Alana Arenas), a drug addict with sticky fingers, doesn’t show up right away. But when she does, it’s with a shattering revelation, the first of a series of calamitous events that places Shelah, tribulation-wise, right up there with Lear or Job.
Unfortunately, these events are introduced into the story with such bulldozing speed that they’re impossible to react to as anything other than dramatic contrivances. Crafting a story about an American woman of color and situating her in a tragical realm with metaphysical implications is a fabulously feminist aim, but if the details of the plot aren’t believable, you’ve sabotaged your story.
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What works, to a point, is how well Rashad handles the (too) lengthy catharsis at the play’s conclusion, in a monologue with mesmerizing moments (although it would be even more powerful if it were abridged).
The supporting cast is uniformly funny, adept and on point. Act 1’s diffuse narrative finally coalesces around a fractious interchange between Shelah and Cookie, beautifully realized by both Rashad and Arenas. Battiste as the opinionated Aubrey, who wants nothing to do with his troubled sister and seeks to shape his mother’s future, helps drive the dynamic in the play’s first half. Jacqueline Williams is immensely likable as Shelah’s big-hearted friend, Mae.
J.W. Mercer's set functions as an apt metaphor for the sudden collapse of Shelah's world, but nothing in its decor (a religious picture, for example, or a treasured knick-knack) seems to relate personally to her. Like the play itself, it seems heavy on concept, light on congruent detail.
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through Oct. 22. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org.