AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Tina Landau
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Thrust Stage
2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA / (510) 647-2949

Reviewed by Judy Richter

People who live in the southernmost part of Louisiana have a precarious existence as three passages of the Mississippi River create swamps and cause the land to shift constantly.

Nevertheless, Shelah Reynolds (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), a longtime black resident, clings to her home even as it and her life literally and figuratively begin crashing in on her in "Head of Passes," presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Tarell Alvin McCraney named his play after this coastal area, which often experiences severe storms and hurricanes.

"Head of Passes" takes place during a heavy rainstorm as Shelah's family and friends gather to celebrate her birthday. The party was arranged by her sons, Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and Spencer (Brian Tyree Henry). Joining them are old friends Mae (Kimberly Scott) and Creaker (Michael A. Shepperd), along with Creaker's teenage son, Crier (Jonathan Burke). Their good-natured banter reflects their long friendships as well as their love for Shelah.

Her stepdaughter, the edgy, troubled Cookie (Nikkole Salter), makes a brief appearance before rushing off.

A surprise guest is her white physician, Dr. Anderson (James Carpenter). He's the only one who knows she's seriously ill, but she wants to be the one to tell the others.

The only other character is the Angel (Sullivan Jones), whom only Shelah can see because he's the angel of death. He, like the other actors, does well in a challenging role.

Symbolically, the living room sprouts one leak after another as more is revealed about Shelah's situation. Much of the house collapses at the end of Act 1.

Act 2 begins the next morning, when Shelah's friends arrive and deliver one piece of tragic news after another. After she orders them to leave, she launches into a lengthy prayer-monologue bewailing her sorrows and regrets.

It's an astonishing performance that holds the audience rapt. Under Tina Landau's direction, Bruce paces this scene well, building Shelah's lamentations, then easing off before going too far.

Also astonishing is the set designed by G.W. Skip Mercier and built by a Berkeley Rep crew that had to incorporate not only water but also beams and other structural elements that could collapse without injuring anyone.

Credit for the other designs goes to Scott Zielinski for lighting, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen for sound and Toni-Leslie James for costumes.

Running about two hours with one intermission, "Head of Passes" is the work of a most promising young playwright and an engrossing theatrical experience.

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