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At Steppenwolf, a flawed work signals a major talent

Tarell Alvin McCraney's Head of Passes puts a payment down on future masterpieces.

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With his trilogy "The Brother/Sister Plays," Tarell Alvin McCraney announced himself as a talented young writer wielding a big vision. He also staked out a territory. The Plays—which Steppenwolf Theatre Company staged, beautifully, in 2010—are set in the Louisiana bayou country, among black folk who live on land easily mistaken for water, and who survive at the pleasure of hurricanes. Perhaps more important, they map out a spiritual homeland—gritty, even sordid, yet mythic in its resonances. Ex-cons and pregnant teenagers bear the names of Yoruba deities.

McCraney's new Head of Passes locates itself along similar geographic and metaphysical coordinates. The title refers to the marshlands surrounding the spot at the southernmost edge of Louisiana, where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico. The community of the play is modest, mostly black, and as deeply rooted as it can be given the spongy terrain and periodically apocalyptic weather. As he did with "The Brother/Sister Plays," McCraney denotes the time period, suggestively, as the "distant present."

The atmosphere is saturated with mythology a la "The Brother/Sister Plays," too—but not the African sort. McCraney has gone Old Testament this time around. His inspiration for Head of Passes, he's said, was the book of Job. And his Job is Shelah, a sweet-natured, stubborn old widow—so devout she can't even tolerate the term "deviled eggs" in her hearing—who runs a bed-and-breakfast in an especially remote and watery region of the Gulf Coast.

The first act opens festively enough. Aubrey, the beloved youngest of Shelah's three grown children, has arranged a surprise birthday party for her, and not even a storm that's sent torrents of rain through a leak in the roof can put him off his plan. Shelah has other reasons for wanting her family around her, though: she's dying of some kind of respiratory ailment that causes her to cough up blood. She's close enough to the end that a bright-faced angel appears to her every so often.

Still, she'd be a very lucky woman if that were her only problem. Before the night is out, Shelah will find out more than she wants to know about her late husband. All her children will die. And, in a very cool coup de theatre from set designer David Gallo (along with his "consultant," Collette Pollard), her B&B will crack up and subside into the marshes.

Involving as it is, this catalog of horrors is just a setup for act two, in which Shelah ruminates on her spectacularly transformed circumstances.

The poor soul has gone completely God-mad by now. Rising from a nap to find herself surrounded by devastation, she exchanges her grandmotherly braided bun and go-to-meeting dress for a buzz cut and water-stained white robes. The lion's share of the play's second movement consists of her long, convulsive monologue on sin and divine wisdom, punctuated by delusional moments with a construction worker whom she takes to be the angel from the first act. (Appropriately, Shelah's name suggests a cross between two Hebrew words: sh'aylah, meaning "question," and selah, which translates, basically, as "pay attention.")

In this final passage Shelah reminds me less of Job than of another man who lost everything, King Lear—going nuts on the heath, utterly lost and strangely relieved. Which is fitting, because where Job is a complete victim, Lear isn't. And neither is Shelah. She has her share of sins to reckon with.

Job, Lear—like I said, McCraney has a big vision. Brilliant as he clearly is, however, he doesn't seem yet to have developed the mastery he needs to fully manifest that vision. Head of Passes offers some gorgeous moments, marvelous language, smart laughs, cunning theater. But it can also come across as scattered, awkward, and inscrutable. Shelah's marathon utterance occasionally devolves into dithering.

Part of the problem may be that Tina Landau's Steppenwolf production just wasn't ready on opening night. The action felt unfocused at times, and, though Cheryl Lynn Bruce is an exquisite actress getting a well-deserved chance to demonstrate her chops as Shelah, she seemed hesitant a good part of the time.

But that's no reason to stay away. For one thing, the kinks are sure to get worked out soon enough. For another, there are plenty of don't-miss performances. Alana Arenas is stunning as Shelah's profoundly troubled daughter, Cookie. Jacqueline Williams applies an expert touch to the obnoxious middle-aged relative, May. Glenn Davis projects a combination of charm, calculation, and the fatal sense of being too clever for his own good as mama's favorite, Aubrey. Chris Boykin radiates the requisite glow as the angel. And Kyle Beltran has an angelic voice as a friend of the family called Crier (though he'll be replaced in that role after May 19). Most important, see this show for the privilege of watching a daring playwright on the verge of a great career.

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