An ailing matriarch (or patriarch) trying to bring a splintered family together before departing the world is fairly common part of a plot. So are takeoffs on God testing someone à la The Book of Job. Combine both and one has “Head of Passes,” a Tarell Alvin McCraney (Oscar winner for “Moonlight”) play set in a Louisiana town subject to the weather whims from the Gulf of Mexico. While the plot gets soggy, Phylicia Rashad’s talent attempts to storm through the plodding parts of “Head of Passes,” which opened this weekend at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and plays through October 22.
Facing imminent death, troubled adult children, finding out about a spouse’s crime, unexpected casualties, and a catastrophic storm are pretty common (and effective) dramatic twists. However, watching long monologues of someone trying to bargain with God gets a little stale. One keeps waiting for something more to happen.
Rashad played the central role of widowed matriarch, Shelah, in New York to great reviews. She is effective here, even if the play teeters between cultural clichés and wordiness.
“Head of Passes,” named for an actual area in the Mississippi River Delta, tells the story of Shelah, who recently received bad news from the doctor. For her birthday, she is determined to bring together her fractured family: Her biological sons, Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway) and her troubled adopted daughter from her late husband’s extramarital affair, Cookie (Alana Arenas). Also on hand are her old friend, Mae (Jacqueline Williams), her white doctor who delivers cringe-inducing lines (James Carpenter), and family employee Creaker (John Earl Jelks) and his son, Crier (Kyle Beltran).
The play opens with Shelah addressing the Lord and the house beginning to leak from the torrential downpour outside. She asks God to let “peace reign even in the storm.” She’s referring her physically crumbling homestead as well as the impending gathering.
Then, the show takes on a lighter, family drama air as the household gets ready and people arrive. There was some hard to hear dialogue at this point, but the sound issues later disappeared. As the storm and number of roof leaks intensify, there is a sense of menace and issues between cast members begin to leak out too. The first act is family drama dotted by revelations and a sense of greater disaster looming as Shelah gives up her fight and awaits death in the falling apart house.
The Second Act
Denied the release she sought, Shelah learns about the tragedies that befell her loved ones during the night (and in the past, to which she long turned a blind eye) as the second act opens. This act is where the faith of Shelah is truly tested by her family tragedy. The “Head of Passes” audience is tested too.
The act is mostly Shelah talking to and haranguing God. As she re-examines her character’s religious fervor, Rashad tries valiantly to make it work with some out-de-force emotion and stoicism in the face of suffering. However, her performance cannot breach the dam placed in her way by the extended monologue.
Rashad is clearly the star, but other characters do shine here, particularly Williams and Beltran. The scenic design by G.W. Mercier is also effective in bringing the reality of the destruction that literally rained down on Shelah to life.
Fans of Tony winner and “The Cosby Show” star Phylicia Rashad will appreciate her talent as she weathers her way through the storm and soggy content of “Head of Passes” in L.A. Those who like Greek tragedies may too. However, the railing at the sky/God seemed pointless – which may have been the point.
By Dyanne Weiss
Performance Sept. 24, 2017
Center Theatre Group
Los Angeles Times Q&A Tarell Alvin McCraney on life after ‘Moonlight’ and his play in L.A., ‘Head of Passes’
Steppenwolf: Suspension of Disbelief
Photos by Craig Schwartz, courtesy of Center Theatre Group. of (L-R) Phylicia Rashad and Jacqueline Williams as well as inset, Rashad alone at the end in “Head of Passes” by Tarell Alvin McCraney.