Head of Passes
You might want to pass on ‘Passes’
|Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
|Head of Passes|
Review by Lauren Whalen
For the last two seasons, Steppenwolf Theatre Company has kicked off with a bang, only to peter out toward the end. Clybourne Park (2011) and Good People (2012) were two of the most provocative, stunning plays I’ve ever seen. Though they weren’t quite as strong, I thoroughly enjoyed last season’s closer Three Sisters and this past January’s The Motherf*cker With the Hat. Everything else has edged away from “hit” straight into “miss”. Sadly, the world premiere of Head of Passes is squarely in “miss” territory, with an inconsistent script and acting to match.
Company member Tarell Alvin McCraney fashioned Head of Passes after the Biblical story of Job. I was surprised to learn this after the show, while reading the press release, as I didn’t get that sense at all while watching. Job’s God-given challenges occur consistently, worsening over a period of time, whereas the tragedies that befall Louisiana matriarch Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) happen in the course of two days: the eve and the date of her birthday. There’s no real indication this is any sort of test for the faithful Shelah, more just a string of very bad luck.
McCraney also collaborated with director Tina Landau on Steppenwolf’s 2010 hit The Brother/Sister Plays. Head of Passes, however, is rife with uncertainty. He can’t quite decide what he wants the show to be: darkly funny family tale, a parable of karma with a supernatural twist, or an allegory of patience and death straight out of the Old Testament. The show’s second act is a dramatic departure from the first, which could have worked if it weren’t so inorganic. The symbolism (a house on the verge of collapse) is overwrought, and most of the play’s turning points take place offstage, hurriedly narrated after the fact. The most basic rule of writing – show, don’t tell – is largely discarded.
Passes’ supporting performances are largely forgettable, save Jacqueline Williams as a flamboyant family friend and ensemble member Tim Hopper as Shelah’s doctor (who displays a surprising ability to boogie). Bruce is a dynamic Shelah, holding her own with soulful authority in the midst of a devastating physical and emotional decline. David Gallo’s design of the crumbling house is phenomenally realistic, and there’s a breathtaking effect that closes Act I (perhaps a reward for the long-winded exposition of the previous hour?).
A note on Passes’ PR materials: I am an unabashedly huge fan of ensemble member Alana Arenas. She almost redeemed 2011’s very mediocre Middletown – an accomplishment in itself – and brought beautiful gravity to both Three Sisters and Good People. I also understand that Steppenwolf may prefer to feature resident ensemble members (Passes only has three, and one of them is present for the second half of the run), and that casting may not be complete by the time said images must be produced. However, featuring Arenas so heavily in Head of Passes materials is very misleading: though she’s wonderful as usual, the role of prodigal daughter Cookie is a cameo at best. She’s not the main character, and calling her “supporting” is generous. Head of Passes is Shelah’s story, and with a tighter script, it could be a good one.
Head of Passes continues through June 9th at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $20-$78, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Steppenwolf.org. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Alana Arenas (Cookie), Jon Michael Hill (Crier – May 21-June 9), Tim Hopper (Dr. Anderson), James T. Alfred (Spencer), Kyle Beltran (Crier – April 4-May 19), Chris Boykin (Angel, Construction Worker), Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Shelah), Glenn Davis (Aubrey), Ron Cephas Jones (Creaker), Jacqueline Williams (Mae), Brittani Arlandis Green, Rob Glidden, Joslyn Jones, Julian Parker, Austin Talley (understudies)
behind the scenes
Tina Landau (director), David Gallo (set design), Collette Pollard (set design consultant), Toni Leslie James (costumes), Scott Zielinski (lighting), Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (sound design, original music), Erica Daniels (casting), Jacob Padron (dramaturg), Laura D. Glenn (stage manager), Cassie Wolgamott (asst. stage manager), Michael Brosilow (photos)