"Head of Passes" comes on as a conventional African-American drama. At first, it could almost be a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" TV special featuring Cicely Tyson, with its playful, teasing, if sometimes pointed family dynamic. Even terminally white Steppenwolf trouper Tim Hopper, as the family physician, gets down with his bad self before the first act is over.
Yet, after the intermission, and the spectacular climax, reminiscent in tone of "Angels in America," that ends the first half, the "roots" that playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney connects with are the roots of theater, from a series of terrible tellings of offstage events right out of Greek tragedy to a Shakespearean soliloquy worthy of "King Lear." At the same time, he's dealing with religion, faith and filial responsibility. It's a heady mix that leaves the naturalism of an August Wilson in the dust.
"Head of Passes"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650, steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday after May 22; through June 9
Parking: Metered street parking and a pay garage
Rating: Sophisticated themes, not for young children
The plot in many ways gets lost in the second half of this retelling of the biblical story of Job, but the theater never does. "Head of Passes" is deeply affecting in a way only a stage play can be.
Goodman regular Cheryl Lynn Bruce comes over to star as Shelah, a Mississippi Delta matriarch so devout she doesn't even like giving the devil his due for deviled eggs. Obviously ailing, she has called her family together to deliver the bad news, only to have them plan a birthday party instead.
She's secure in the Lord and puts the doctor in his place, demanding, "What keys you got to life and death? What pocket you hide them in?"
Her family, however, never transcends stereotype, from Glenn Davis' self-consciously concerned Aubrey Jr. to James Alfred's officiously inept Spencer to Alana Arenas' lost woman Cookie, an illegitimate child brought home as a baby by their rolling stone of a papa (long since dead) and embraced as one of her own by Shelah.
"Let the dead bury the dead," Cookie says, quoting a favorite line of Shelah herself. "Sometimes you need pretending."
Foretelling the terrible events to come, it's raining on the Mississippi Delta for Shelah's party, and her empty-nest home has sprung an abundance of leaks. Her house literally comes crashing down at the intermission, and believe it or not (reality becomes elusive) things only get worse in the second act.
"I am talking with my Lord," Shelah cries. "He is punishing me. For what I don't know."
The benevolent onstage presence God is given in the first act only makes his silence in the second half more profound.
Yet, left alone onstage, Bruce delivers a bravura tour de force of a soliloquy, equal part madness, gospel testifying, comedy and anguish. I doubt if it reads as powerfully on the page, but there's no doubt Bruce makes it connect with the audience. And it sells this play.
Which otherwise isn't perfect. The family drama between Ron Cephas Jones' Creaker and his son, Crier, played by Kyle Beltran (to be replaced by Steppenwolf member Jon Michael Hill later in the run) seems ancillary even in its parallelism, except that somebody has to do the telling of the tragedy -- and sing the spiritual -- that serves as catalyst.
And I'll leave it to each individual audience member to determine if the play's final note is a little pat or very much mysterious.
Yet what's clear is that McCraney, teamed again with director Tina Landau, who also handled his "Brother/Sister Plays" at Steppenwolf, understands the unique qualities of theater and how to make use of them. He will probably write better overall plays than "Head of Passes," and he'll most likely write them for Steppenwolf as an ensemble member, but if he does so while tapping into the same deep currents of thought and feeling, faith and reality, and the very essence of drama, he'll leave audiences crushed the way life sometimes leaves us all crushed. Can any playwright have ambitions more grand?