Modern ‘Job’ is Heartbreaking

Showing at the Public Theater, Head of Passes tells the story of Shelah and her family coming together to celebrate her birthday.

Why do bad things happen to good people? “Head of Passes,” a play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, based on the Book of Job, toys with the idea of testing faith in times of hardship.

“Head of Passes” follows Shelah (Phylicia Rashad), a faithful, God-fearing woman with a big secret — she’s dying. On her birthday, she gathers her closest friends and family in her rural Louisiana home to tell them that she doesn’t have much time left. As family tensions rise, Shelah neglects to tell her loved ones the news and they all head out in the midst of a daunting storm. Shelah passes out, as her home collapses around her under the pressure of the storm. She awakes to even worse news — three of her children have died. She struggles with the idea of her family being taken from her after seeing herself as the one who is supposed to die. In Shelah’s desperation, she calls out to God for help, contemplating sacrifice and faith as the floods rise up around her.

The play is incredibly well-rounded, infusing humor in the tragic and tragedy in the humorous. The despair of Shelah’s inner-monologue is mimicked by the set (designed by G.W. Mercier), which, in an impeccably well-executed way, deteriorates in front of the audience’s eyes. At the beginning of the play, the set is a quaint family home with a few leaks. By the end of act one, the house has collapsed and by the end of act two, the house is submerged in water. This incredibly bold set is intricate and striking and serves as the lifeblood of the play.

Phylicia Rashad’s performance as Shelah is breathtaking — she makes very strong and bold choices, creating a complex, three-dimensional character. Her passion makes Shelah’s pain incredibly apparent and heartbreaking to watch. Rashad embodies Shelah’s physical illness very believably and creates a moving duality between her physical exhaustion and emotional desperation. Rashad performs the second act of the play almost entirely alone, giving a rousing look into her character’s darkest fears.

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Another commendable performance was that of Alana Arenas, who plays Cookie, Shelah’s heroin-addicted daughter. Arenas gave an energetic performance and has impeccable comedic timing, also appearing vulnerable during the more tense moments. The entire cast was well-connected and played off each other’s energy, driving the play like a well-oiled machine.

What makes “Head of Passes” so tragic is its closeness to reality — while the story of Job is removed from reality by a couple thousand years, this story of God’s wrath is present and relatable, intensified by the detailed set and the well-developed realistic characters. The detail in every aspect of the play makes it impossible to not care for these characters. “Head of Passes” is easily one of the best plays from this theater season.

“Head of Passes” is playing at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday April 18 print edition. Email Joseph Myers at [email protected]

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