• Ryan Singleton
  • Cheryl Lynn Bruce prays in Head of Passes

I can’t remember the last time I called anything electrifying, but the 2010 Steppenwolf Theatre production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy, “The Brother/Sister Plays,” was exactly that for me. Set in the Louisiana bayou, it did with Yoruba mythology what Eugene O’Neill did with Greek: gave archetypal resonance to American lives.

I was particularly jolted by the first third, In the Red and Brown Water, which tells the story of Oya—a poor, young black woman with a talent for running—and a world that wants her barefoot and pregnant. The other two thirds had their problems, but as I wrote in my review, “I’d rather be puzzled by this incredibly ambitious and accomplished work than satisfied by something less.”

Naturally I was hot to see McCraney’s next Steppenwolf show, Head of Passes, when it opened last spring—anxious to get a look at the next chapter in the unfolding brilliance of a playwright who was 32 years old at the time.

And then I saw it.

And it was, well, not what I’d expected.

The mythological frame of reference this time was the Old Testament. Based on the Book of Job, Head of Passes follows a pious old woman named Shelah as she, first, loses everything—health, children, home, even the comfort of the lies she’s told herself—and then wrestles with the cosmic consequences. In Tina Landau’s production, the act-one losses packed a significant wallop, but the act-two wrestling was a crash-and-burn mess. It was evident that Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) was supposed to be on her way to the other side of torment, but the long monologue that should’ve taken her there was, I wrote, “scattered, awkward, and inscrutable.” The word “dithering” came up.

The second act of Head of Passes was, in short, a rout. Yet I was sorely tempted to put the show on my list of my favorites for 2013. Certainly, it was the best failure of the year—partly because of a few powerful performances, partly because of a great bit of stagecraft that had Shelah’s house subsiding into the bayou.

But mostly because it was, in its weird way, the fulfillment of the promise of “The Brother/Sister Plays.” Or an installment on the fulfillment of that promise. For all its disappointments, Head of Passes was also clear, continuing evidence of McCraney’s prodigious talent and passion, his feel for his chosen world, his reckless willingness to go for broke in putting that world and its resonances onstage. No, it wasn’t the masterpiece I’d been hoping for, but it wasn’t small or weak or modish, either. And so I can wait.