Entertainment :: Theatre

Head of Passes

by Rebecca Sarwate
Contributor
Wednesday Apr 17, 2013
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Jacqueline Williams, Kyle Beltran, Ron Cephas Jones, ensemble member Tim Hopper and Cheryl Lynn Bruce
Jacqueline Williams, Kyle Beltran, Ron Cephas Jones, ensemble member Tim Hopper and Cheryl Lynn Bruce  (Source:Michael Brosilow)

I sat in the audience at the press opening of Steppenwolf Theatre’s powerful, world-premiere drama "Head of Passes" just this past Saturday afternoon. In the moment, I was struck by many elements including the work’s modern, yet timeless understanding of the knotty mess begotten by intertwining questions of privilege and faith.

I was immediate transported to the denouement of the 2012 Presidential election, when some pundits were trafficking in a particular view of candidate Mitt Romney. "He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple," was a not infrequent analogy that made a very poignant accusation about the religious dogma that Romney and other GOP candidates used as a blunt instrument against "godless liberals." Because it’s actually remarkably easy to give all credit to God’s will when your faith has never been tested.

Two days of an early spring head cold and one Boston Marathon terrorist attack later, "Head of Passes" becomes a more powerful and topical production than ever. Written by Steppenwolf ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney, and directed by fellow ensemble constituent Tina Landau, these two talents could not have predicted the present context in which the works now finds itself.

Be that as it may as the nation works through its collective fear, grief and sorrow and tackles larger existential questions (are open spaces truly public anymore?), an already gifted piece of art becomes must-see viewing for theatergoers of the third largest city in America.

Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey places the work in the following context: "The membrane between this world and the unseen world may be porous. We must endure our doubt, we must endure not knowing. Somewhere in that, is our faith."

Lavey could well be describing the plight of "Head of Passes" matriarch Shelah (a spellbinding Cheryl Lynn Bruce), an ill woman-of-means swept into Book of Job-esque tragedy. But Lavey may also be an accidental mystic, tapping into the conundrum currently confronting Americans of all religions.

The talented cast members deserve their own separate accolades -- If the Jeff awards include an ensemble category, I’d better see this group at the top of the next list of nominees.

Where is our spiritual trajectory taking us? Is it in the destructive, hateful direction epitomized by those who feel estranged from 21st Century privilege? Or is it found in the path of the selfless, those who run toward danger to offer comfort and help, regardless of personal safety?

Although we’d love to believe it’s the latter scenario, most of us lack Shelah’s enviable confidence. Because even after she’s lost everything dear to her -- health, family, hearth -- she is a servant of God. But beyond blind faith, the Shelah that flows from McCraney’s pen is aware of her own agency, a woman who feels close enough to her deity to admit her culpability in the production’s unfolding events. This mix of reason and loyalty renders Shelah is one of the most interesting, anachronistic characters I’ve met this theater season.

The talented cast members deserve their own separate accolades but, in the interest of keeping this review to a readable length, I will confine my remarks to insistence. If the Jeff awards include an ensemble category, I’d better see this group at the top of the next list of nominees.

Scenic Designer David Gallo, making his first appearance at Steppenwolf, may also want to have his best tuxedo cleaned for awards season. The Tony-winning artist’s work is nothing short of astonishing. To say much more would be to deprive ticket holders of the sensory delights that await, but I will say that, in a room packed with theater connoisseurs, the audible gasps overheard at the end of the first act are indicative of Gallo’s nearly unbelievable accomplishment. The audacity! The intricacy!

Plot summary is simply too pedestrian for this philosophical, moral and visual stunner. I don’t know how to make my argument more forcefully: even before the Apr. 15 Boston Marathon tragedy, this production was a must. In the aftermath of yet another violent calamity that calls for collective soul-searching, it is almost irresponsible to omit "Head of Passes" from one’s artistic calendar.

"Head of Passes" runs through June 9 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL. For info or tickets call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.

Rebecca Sarwate is the current President of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association, founded in 1885. She’s also a part-time freelance writer, award-winning columnist and blogger who lives in the Rogers Park neighborhood of the city with her cats, Dino and Jordan. Keep up with Rebecca at http://open.salon.com/blog/becky_boop

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