Review: Berkeley Rep’s ‘Head of Passes’ smolders through the rain

Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) deals with the pain of loss as the Angel (Sullivan Jones)  looks on in
Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) deals with the pain of loss as the Angel (Sullivan Jones) looks on in “Head of Passes” at Berkeley Rep. (Photo by kevinberne.com)

Job had it all.

Loving children. Wealth. Thousands of livestock animals.

But most importantly, he had an unshakeable faith.

He needed the latter in spades. One day, messengers, one by one, came upon him to deliver the devastating news:

His livestock had perished.

His children died while the house they were in was devastated by a vicious windstorm.

Everything Job possessed was gone. Surely, this would be a reason to curse God and his seemingly infinite cruelty.

Job did not. If anything, he understood what God giveth, God taketh away. This was as much reason to praise God as any.

Tarell Alvin McCraney and his brilliant pen have created a beautiful poetic version adapted from the biblical story of a man and his faith, setting his story at the Head of Passes, where the main stem of the Mississippi River branches towards three directions at its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. “Head of Passes,” making its West Coast premiere, comes straight to Berkeley Repertory Theatre after premiering at the famed Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. The play is loaded with mastery, from the performances of this deep, richly talented cast to the brilliant and wildly inventive set design by G.W. Skip Mercier.

The story focuses on the matriarch Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), who is celebrating a birthday, but hiding a secret. That secret is on the path of being given away by Doctor Anderson (James Carpenter), who comes to the house but is clearly not welcome. She has no time to deal with her health when she is dealing with her two sons Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and Spencer (Bryan Tyree Henry). She is also fretting about her step-daughter Cookie (Nikkole Salter), who pops in when it’s convenient for her, looking for another few bucks to get her by until the next time she will inevitably need a few more bucks to keep getting her by.

There are also other lively characters that help tell this story. There is fun loving Creaker (Michael A. Shepperd) and his singing son Crier (Jonathan Burke), who both share in a very strained relationship. Then there is Mae (Kimberly Scott), a strong confidante to Shelah.

Most interesting in Tina Landau’s intricate staging is the role of the Angel, played with strong, stony silence by Sullivan Jones, a handsome gent that hovers over the stage like a young Cassius Clay, tall, lean and full of forceful presence. He opens the show doing nothing more than sitting and staring into the audience, stone-faced and full of mystery. His concentration is second to none (remarkable considering a major gaffe before the show started, with a ceiling fan collapsing to the ground, which received nary a glance from Jones).

There is no secret that The Angel is someone who is ever-present in Shelah’s life. We know this because Shelah is sick, breathing with a wheezing sound that does not even allow her to blow out her birthday candles. While it is clear Shelah is doing all she can to remain strong and present for her family, we know the end is near.

What is devastating is that it’s not the end we had in mind. Before long, Shelah will deal with circumstances that far outweigh something as trivial as her coughing up blood into a handkerchief. Like Job, Shelah receives her own set of circumstances that test anyone a hundred times over.

Now what she does when she receives this news is explodes into one of the most poetic and powerful expressions in a 40-minute soliloquy, full of pathos and range. It reminded me of another epic monologue I saw, coincidentally at Steppenwolf, from the Tony Kushner epic “Homebody/Kabul” portrayed by the great Amy Morton. To hear the cast and others tell it in a post-show talk back, there were plenty of changes that changed the show. With Bruce the only cast member to appear in the Chicago production, the role was certainly shaped and molded to fit her strengths.

Act two is all hers. Just observe how she is able to stop and start all of these raw emotions on a dime. The anger. The pain. The questioning. Her searing portrayal goes hand in hand with McCraney’s gifted writing style, one of the most important young voices in the American theatre today.

There are takeaways aplenty from the story of Job and the adapted story told in Berkeley. Certainly, there is no denying that this is a story of devastation, but also of hope.

Once the rain stops pouring down, even rain that comes through the many leaks in the house, there is no doubt that bright sunlight will soon follow.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Head of Passes”
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Tina Landau
The Word: Powerful, pathos filled show, driven by an epic performance by Cheryl Lynn Bruce
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
The Thrust Stage at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $29 – $79
Through May 24th
For tickets and information, call (510) 657-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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