Passes and Fails: Tarell McCraney's Heads of Passes, Now at Berkeley Rep, Watches a Family Implode

He's not on the cast list, but the Devil is everywhere in Tarell McCraney's cyclonic Heads of Passes.

At the very least, an evil spirit runs rampant, fouling faith's proverbial waters in the two-act play directed by Tina Landau of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Delivered with resounding thunder by a force-of-nature cast on the Thrust Stage, Passes scales up in a massive tale of gods, family, and catastrophic love.

McCraney, a hot commodity on the playwright circuit, is the winner of a 2013 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, a Doris Duke Artist Award, and other honors. His The Brother/Sister Plays trilogy came to Bay Area stages (Magic Theatre, A.C.T. and Marin Theatre Company) in 2010. Passes premiered in Chicago in 2013 to mixed reviews, and McCraney and Landau have tightened the production before bringing it to Berkeley.

Inspired by the Biblical Job, a man burnt, afflicted with boils, impoverished, and stripped by God of his very offspring, Passes subjects a southern Louisiana matriarch, named Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) to equally bad things. With her family gathering to celebrate her birthday at a party she didn't expect and doesn't want, floods, illness, betrayal, addictions, incest, death, and flawed family relationships arrive like uninvited house guests. Even a dark Angel (Sullivan Jones) menaces. His forced grin makes Shelah giggle uncontrollably, but his alternative countenance surpasses stern to become nothing less than a storm of judgment itself.

If the first act rolls out like a turbulent carpet with the occasional overly dramatic segue, and the second act drives a stake so thick it comes just shy of wedging itself into the heart of misfortune, the cumulative effect is like surviving a squall. Tossed out of the theater as if washed up on the shore, a person is grateful to be alive, but disoriented, saturated, still choking on the debris of McCraney's ambition. But perhaps that's his intention. Why should a man wrestle alone when there's all of humanity to share in pondering the turmoil between good and evil? McCraney doesn't solve our problems as much as shake our cage.

Shelah's faith — in God, in the power of banishing deviled eggs from her dilapidated, falling-down house — is splintered and nearly destroyed by her two sons, Spencer (Brian Tyree Henry) and the fancy-pants Aubrey (Francoise Battiste). Cookie (Nikkole Salter) becomes another thorn in the family's side. An illegitimate child born to Shelah's deceased husband, Big Aubrey, she pierces Shelah's too-fond heart with her addictions and backstory.

With rain pouring through the living room ceiling, Shelah's support system can't prevent the collapse of her home and family. Best friend Mae (a joyful Kimberly Scott), top employee Creaker (big-hearted Michael A. Shepperd) and not-so-secret admirer Dr. Anderson (the superb James Carpenter) are integral to the first act's set up. Appearing as only a blink after intermission, they deliver multiple, blinding blows. Driving them from her home, Shelah is left with only the Angel, who foreshadows her moves amid the cantilevered wreckage of G.W. Mercier's ingeniously designed set.

Bruce shines in the role she originated with a porousness that allows for a genuine, mixed response. We want to slap her out of the mother's love that blinds her, then put her on a pedestal for never giving up on her troublesome children. McCraney packs Bruce's second act soliloquy with a poetic sense equal to the Bible's finest psalms — at times overly so. It's easy to miss one phrase while contemplating another that just passed, but only because Bruce delivers each line with mesmerizing power. A second viewing of the play becomes a temptation.

Landau manages to pull rabbits out of her hat with fine pacing and vivid performances she draws from the cast. Battiste is the perfect silvery foil, riding his character's complicated love/hate mannerisms like a slippery fish. Scott and Anderson may not get as much attention in their supporting roles, but like the water used (and recycled, the Rep notes for the drought-weary audience's sake), the play wouldn't work without their fluid presence.

It's ironic that the best thing to say about Passes might be that it's disturbing. Haunted by ghosts and angels, gods and good intentions gone bad long after the play is over, Passes reminds us that as much as we might try to control it, evil lurks in life's dark corners. Unfailing faith in a god, good forces, long-suffering love, or the natural world's beauty may be our only redress.

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