If superlative acting interests you -- and you probably wouldn't be reading this if it didn't -- you're well advised to make every effort you can to see Phylicia Rashad as Shelah in Tarell Alvin McCraney's Head of Passes, at the Public. Rashad is all but literally bringing down the timbers of set designer C. W. Mercier's threatened Louisiana home in a drama that could be considered a throwback to the mid-20th-century well-made play. About that I say what Shelah, who's fiercely devoted to her faith, might say: "Praise the Lord!"
We'd better be grateful that McCraney saw potential in placing his drama at the point where, as program notes explain, the three main branches of the Mississippi River flow into the Gulf of Mexico. The area is known as Head of Passes and has severely been losing land for a long time, which accounts for the practically Biblical rain dripping heavily through matriarch Shelah's roof.
We'd better be grateful that it also occurred to McCraney to join the disturbed territory with updating, as is also explained in the program notes, "The Book of Job" -- replacing Job's calamities with those descending on Shelah in the course of two acts. It should be noted that in his maelstrom-like spin, he doesn't hold back. Neither,by the way, do sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.
Shelah, not a woman to make a fuss over her own birthday -- may be tolerating the supposed surprise party her family and friends are preparing, but she's hardly looking forward to it. She's concerned with needing to inform older son Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway), younger son Aubrey (Francois Battiste), daughter Cookie (Alana Arenas) and best friend Mae (Arnetia Walker) about her failing health, while household workers Creaker (John Earl Jelks) and his son Crier (Kyle Beltran) facilitate things. Encouraging her to be open about her condition is family physician Dr. Anderson (Robert Joy).
Given the tribulations afflicting Shelah and their cruel consequencs, the temptation to call Head of Passes a tragedy exists, but since tragedies by some definitions require a protagonist with a fatal flaw, the temptation should be resisted. Shelah is a good woman, a woman so devout that one of her house rules is never mentioning the devil's name. At one point and in one of the occasional jokes leavening Head of Passes, Creaker has to justify his mention of deviled eggs.
Hewing closely to Job's saga of endless woe under the hand of a testing God, McCraney at first reveals Shelah as a wise woman who loves and understands her sons -- all the while chastising them for transgressions she sees. She readily forgives Cookie, a known drug addict whom she raised as her daughter when now deceased husband Aubrey brought his out-of-wedlock child home.
Shelah, who's admirably righteous -- and at one point typically declares "Word is bond" -- stands up for anyone she loves and stands up to anyone who disagrees with her convictions. Often celebrating her Lord, she doesn't begin to doubt His actions as the rain continues and other dreadful developments mount. (They won't be itemized here.) Instead, she questions herself.
Through it Rashad gives a sterling performance. At first she's immaculate in a grey wig (Robert Charles Vallance's design) and a matron's tasteful party frock (Toni-Leslie James's design). Then, as her beloved home begins to fall apart she's less pulled together. Before McCraney, who's other works include The Brother/Sister Plays, ends his masterful work, Rashad has run emotions stretching from A to well beyond Z.
When Shelah has suffered the last of the Job-like torments, McCraney give her a lengthy monologue in which her life flashes before her. She insists on confronting all the mistakes she's convinced she made. It's not so much that family secrets finally emerge with dire consequences but that Rashad has long sensed what the secrets are while refusing to acknowledge them.
Rashad's delivery of a speech in which a good woman examines her soul and finds it wanting is superb. If standing ovations hadn't become meaningless several decades back, I'd say Rashad deserves one. Maybe what she deserves instead is the utter silence that often greets something this accomplished.
(FYI: In the Bible there are two figures named Shelah. Both are male. "Shelah" might also conjure the "selah" that appears in the Bible 74 times. Various meanings have been attributed to it. I've always read it as "So be it.")
In addition to jokes like the one about deviled eggs, McCraney is careful to relieve the somber moments almost up to but not including the denouement where uninterrupted solemnity is called for. One light-hearted sequence has Mae and Dr. Anderson showing the assembled parties how the Hully Gully, that dance craze, is meant to be done in their neck of the wet woods. It illustrates that the family that plays together stays together but ultimately only temporarily.
Each of the other players, under Tina Landau's faultless direction, is at the high levels of the others. As Creaker and Crier, Jelks and Beltran are a father and son at odds, and both excel during an all-too-believable late confrontation. As Aubrey, whom Shelah has favored, Battiste is suave and angry. As the lesser loved Spencer, the bulky Calloway is angry for a different reason. Arenas's Cookie, who has kept one of the worst family secrets, constantly exhales edginess while simultaneously courting and condemning Shelah. Joy's Dr. Anderson, who's been keeping his own secret about Shelah, neatly balances his demands of, and deference to, her. Walker's Mae is loving as well as confused by Shelah's mood swings.
Head of Passes arrives at the Public after McCraney and Landau sharpened it over some years at Chicago's Steppenwolf and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Since the play is so complex, they had their work cut out for them, or, more accurately, they cut out difficult work for themselves. They've completed it with awe-inspiring success. I'd go so far as to say if you only have time to see one play this year, Head of Passes is it.