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Performance Wed Apr 17 2013
When Steppenwolf's house lights dimmed for the first act of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Head of Passes, I was immediately transported to the South, to the mouth of the Mississippi River, on an afternoon when the air was heavy in the way it can be only before a thunderstorm. This heaviness not only gave the play its setting, but also its tone, suspending the audience in a disbelief broken only once in two hours by the single 15-minute intermission.
Head of Passes begins on the eve of Shelah's (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) birthday, a date this spiritual woman and mother of three has been too busy to remember. Her middle son, Aubrey (Glenn Davis) is in high spirits as he seeks to make his mother's birthday one she'll never forget -- despite the leaks in the living room, representative of the cracks developing within their family -- complete with cake, scotch, laughter and family. However, these are not the reasons that Shelah will remember this night, and the tragic turn of events haunts her long into the future.
At my parents' home in Colorado, there's a barometer on the wall to warn of pressure changes that may indicate a coming storm. They don't often need to check the barometer, because our little tuxedo cat has his own built in. For hours before the thunder begins, the cat lets out these terrible noises -- loud screeching meows that remind me a little of a tornado siren -- and runs around the house, anxious and restless, unable to escape from what he feels is coming. To a degree, we all feel anxiety preceding a storm -- an instinct that Head of Passes uses to its advantage. The characters in the play run around anxiously and howl warnings in their own subconscious way, as they feel the physical and figurative storms coming in their direction. The approaching squall will tear down the house they grew up in and the home they built within it.
Shelah is a woman of advanced years and of God -- praying constantly, speaking out loud to God, and making sure "vain" phrases as innocent as "deviled eggs" aren't spoken in her home. She is the embodiment of the soulful wisdom of the South, and she is ready to claim her place in Heaven. When an angel appears to her several times on the night of her birthday yet she isn't given release from her earthly life, she believes that God is punishing her. But through all of the questions, tears, illnesses and hardships, she remains faithful to a god with a higher understanding and plan for everyone and everything.
There is a great deal of humor in this play as well, although sometimes it's the desperate, tragic humor that surfaces at funerals and during national catastrophes. I found it amazing how well the cast portrayed a family. The audience feels as though they're looking in on something that's really happening, and the love and sadness are as tangible as the set itself. The set deserves a shout-out as well; Steppenwolf has built a full scale house on the stage that they destroy and resurrect with every performance.