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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Head of Passes at Steppenwolf

Or “When an angel shows up, sometimes it’s just to wrestle”

By Tarell Alvin McCraney

(Subtitle lifted with reverence from Kevin Kling, storyteller)

Though rarely mentioned in McCraney’s new drama, the eponymous landscape serves as the best tuned metaphor for the play. The Head of Passes is a serene and eerie loci of marshes and islands where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf, where trusted ground can, overnight, transform into a sucking mire that brings even the strongest foundation, and people, to their knees.

An updated and Americanized version of the story of Job, Head of Passes focuses around Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) the matriarch of a well kept but commercially neglected bed and breakfast, the mother to three wayward children, and a woman of uncompromising faith in her God, her church, and her place with both. The first act begins when Shelah’s motley collection of friends, family, and neighbors gather to pull off a surprise birthday party, combat the rain seeping through the old roof and rake up old grudges, abuses and plans for the future. In the midst of all this Shelah, who is bravely confronting her failing health and trying to wrangle some legacy for her children, is visited by a mysterious smiling guest (Chris Boykin) who only she can see. His appearance heralds, not, as Shelah hopes, an escort into paradise but rather a series of unfortunate events that bring the good woman’s world crashing, literately and figuratively, around her ears.

The seed of McCraney’s play is Faith, not the everyday, hope for the future kind, but the sort you can moor boats to. His essential goal is to find out what Job said to God when his life was stripped from him, how someone could keep holding on to an empty heaven. McCraney displays a very genteel egalitarianism, for his story and the events that unfold will resonate and seem logical to the most zealous evangelical, the staunchest atheist and all those in between. Even more impressive then the psychological and/or spiritual events is his Louisianan lyricism and the warm folds of the stories his characters tell. The script can be seen as a felled forest of hyphens where Shelah and her guests swing from one thought to another, but amidst this are quiet glades of musical phrasing: “ Your daddy brought home business and a blanket. In that business was money and in that blanket was your sister. Your daddy said her name is Cookie, and I called her ‘Cookie’ and ‘Mine’ as well”. Yet this language slowly curls and falls away as tragedy after tragedy falls upon the heroines head as she struggles Lear-like through the ruins of her life until she meets her Angel in a most unlikely form.

Bruce shines out through the nearly heightened text wheezing as her lungs dissolve, praising God, and thumbing through her memories of where she went wrong. She of all the cast is best able to ride the lightening swift changes of thought and knit us up in a tale of times past. Sometimes her ‘madness’ comes across as fained, but her pain, physical and spiritual, and her power bid the audiences arms reach out and enfold her. She is truly a master of her craft and tailor made for this role. In the other corner Boykin has very little to say, but what he does carries a deep resonance that makes hair stand and stomachs sink. The supporting cast, also effortlessly swings from thought to thought engaging in romping multiple conversations that might in less skilled hands fallen into chaos and confusion.

Special shout outs go to David Gallo scenic designer (who justly raked up acclaim for The Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway some years ago),for his tidy set that steadily, almost organically, grows wilder and wilder and Scott Zeilmski who creates a Tesla-like electrical magic trick using only a strand of party bulbs.

If you want nice big questions to chew on, or if you want to hear a neatly and profoundly well woven play, get over to Steppenwolf (student tickets only $15) and trudge into that strange kingdom where land and water meet and lives are drowned, and reborn, in an eye blink.

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