The rain comes down hard in “Head of Passes.” So do the troubles, in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s remarkable 2013 drama, which opened in its West Coast premiere Friday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Named for the southern Louisiana bayou region often punished by severe flooding, the play is a deep meditation on faith and family. McCraney (the Brother/Sister Plays) makes Shelah (the powerful Cheryl Lynn Bruce) a matriarch who endures a massive storm – and a family coming apart at the seams – in this affectingly poetic work.
Shelah’s been through a lot in her old house at the edge of the marshlands. She and her husband raised a family and ran a business catering to oil workers there. Now she’s a widow, and the house has been battered by one storm too many. As her family gathers to celebrate her birthday, the roof springs a leak and rain floods her front room. (G.W. Skip Mercier’s set, Scott Zielinski’s lighting, and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's sound make it feel alarmingly real.)
That’s just the beginning for Shelah, a woman so steeped in faith she won’t even allow “deviled” eggs in her home. There’s contention between her two sons, Aubrey and Spencer, and her adopted daughter, Cookie. And Shelah is ill, with a condition she’s ignoring despite warnings from her friendly parish physician. Death literally hovers around her, in the figure of an Angel.
McCraney eases gently into the crisis. As the guests assemble, Act 1 achieves a nice mix of comedy and foreboding. But in the harsh revelations of Act 2, his script acquires tragic dimension. When Shelah finally confronts the storm’s physical and psychic devastation, the play recalls the deep human trials of “King Lear,” “A Long Day’s Journey into Night” and The Book of Job.
Director Tina Landau, who helmed the play’s premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, calibrates the emotional impact with surgical precision. The cast follows suit, giving great performances across the board.
As Shelah, Bruce combines authority (“I’m the mama, I do the tellin’” is one of her character-defining lines) with touching vulnerability; her Act 2 monologue is nothing short of spellbinding. Nikkole Salter’s Cookie burns with wounded intensity. Francois Battiste’s Aubrey and Brian Tyree Henry’s Spencer are well-matched; Michael A. Shepperd’s Creaker, Kimberly Scott’s Mae, and James Carpenter’s Dr. Anderson supply apt comic notes. Jonathan Burke’s sweet-voiced Crier and Sullivan Jones’s elegant Angel round out the cast.
Together, they take us to the heart of McCraney’s storm. Audiences, take note: walking outside afterward, the clear skies of Berkeley may seem slightly unreal.
Head of Passes
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: Most Tuesdays-Sundays; closes May 24
Tickets: $49 to $79
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org