'Head of Passes': A family's trials, inspired by Job

THEATER REVIEW: "Head of Passes" at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company ★★★

Despite his humility and regard for God's rules, Old Job has a rough time in his book. The fire of God burns up his sheep, and his oxen are carried off by raiders, but that's just livestock. He gets boils on his head, but that's just an affliction of the skin. The real trouble comes when Job's offspring are having a party at the oldest brother's place, and a mighty wind sweeps in from the desert and collapses the house, killing all 10 of Job's beloved kids.

So why do the righteous suffer? That's the central question of Job. And its corollary from Jeremiah 12:1, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" — a question that invariably pops into our heads whenever something such as Hurricane Katrina, or a raging tsunami, or the death of Hadiya Pendleton reveals the extent of human vulnerability and the way pain is afflicted without apparent regard for deservedness.

You can see Job as an inspirational primer on how to bear suffering well, or as outrageous evidence of the cruelty of the God of the Old Testament, or as an allegory that concludes there is much we just cannot understand. And the story is the source of inspiration for the hugely ambitious world premiere currently at that righteous Chicago outfit known as the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where the formidable scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney (the "Brother/Sister" plays) has arranged for a righteous woman's house in the marshlands of southern Louisiana to similarly come crashing down around her heels.

Let us stipulate that "Head of Passes" is unwieldy and problematic, especially in its second act. It requires one to wrestle and contend with oneself. It needs more work. It is not ideally cast and needs, I think, a second, separate production. But it is the well-worth-seeing, must-be-supported work of an extraordinarily gifted and ambitious writer who is working with an ideal director in Tina Landau.

The steadfast Job of "Head of Passes" (which McCraney has said was inspired by the biblical book but is not an adaptation thereof) is Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), a widowed woman whose adult kids, led by the genial and loquacious Aubrey (Glenn Davis), are throwing her a party for a big birthday, a party of which she is greatly afeared (as was, for the record, my own mother very recently). Shelah, like most mothers who have lived a long time, knows suffering.

Her house already has a leak in the middle of the dining room, and the doctor (Tim Hopper) who shows up for her surprise shebang notices she is coughing up blood into her handkerchief. And the genesis of those celebrating kids is far from simple; modern families are complicated. One daughter, Cookie (Alana Arenas, whose work is suffused with tension), might well have good reason to never be able to sit down in a house that once caused her so much pain. Maybe Shelah never saw any of Cookie's pain. Maybe she was too busy with her faith.

So in the first act, which Landau directs with real pace and foreboding, it feels very much like we are watching McCraney make some nods to his mentor August Wilson. It is a busy, realistic setting, full of symbols of doom and maybe salvation. There are fancy waiters wandering around the party. But Shelah, and Shelah alone, sees a handsome angel in black tie (Chris Boykin) who portends of something.

By Act 2, Shelah's world has collapsed, a change that the designer David Gallo manifests in all its existential and eye-popping theatrical glory (it is worth the price of admission). Most everyone seems to have disappeared — heck, the initially realistic set of rules has disappeared — and that angel is asking something else entirely. So how might Shelah, be she heroine of her own story or a Mother Courage of the Mouth of the Mississippi, abide?

The major problem at this juncture is, to put this simply and bluntly, that we do not sufficiently care what she does. Bruce has a formidable acting assignment here, and she throws her very capable self fully into this difficult character — but you sense throughout that she is still getting her head around McCraney's fulsome vision and not yet really, well, changing or learning or feeling as she goes. Even stoics swallow hard. The other problem is that Boykin, playing McCraney's symbol of God, or the devil, or our psychotic delusions, or of that which passes all our understanding, is attired a bit too much like a Chippendales dancer — an erotic vision would be fine, but Bruce seems not to be going there. When the angel subsequently appears as a demolition guy in reflective safety gear, the Village People popped into my head. A lot rides on that symbol. You sense that McCraney and Landau want ordinary referents, which is fine, but he needs more nuance and ambivalence to carry the essential gravitas of what McCraney is setting up in Act 2.

McCraney writes the richest dialogue of any scribe of his generation, and his Act 1 family scenes are extraordinarily vivid and vital. The performances from those in Shelah's orbit are very strong: Hopper is beautifully nuanced, Ron Cephas Jones and Jacqueline Williams are filled with life, and the young actor Kyle Beltran is one of those guys who can suggest pain, hope and quotidian veracity all at once. The piece dances deliciously for its first hour.

And then, well, Shelah's chickens come home to roost, even if it maybe was not her fault, and she must decide how to suffer, what to do. And we must feel and see and question ourselves and start to understand there only is so much we can control. We don't — not quite, not yet.

cjones5@tribune.com

Through June 9 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.; running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes; tickets: $20-$78 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolftheatre.org

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