Berkeley Rep unleashes a flood

Big rain, big emotions wash over Berkeley Rep1429560836HP4_lr.jpg

She’s a warm, strong, loving woman, devoted to her family and to God–and then all hell breaks loose.


You’ll recognize the conundrum in another form: “Why do the righteous suffer?”  If you’re religious, the question may make you twitch.  If you’re an atheist it may evoke a roll of the eyes.

How does a playwright reply?  With a play, of course, and there’s one at Berkeley Rep right now.  Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who penned the Brother/Sister trilogy that was co-produced at several local theaters a couple of years ago, it’s called Head of Passes, and it centers on that strong, loving woman in paragraph one.  After her world crashes in upon her, she stands amidst the wreckage, crying, “Why?”

For her it’s a religious issue, because she’s a devout Christian.  God will provide, she’s always believed.  Why does He seem to have forsaken her?  If her tale reminds you of the Book of Job, that’s because it’s the jumping-off point that Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre associate, Tina Landau, proposed to McCraney.  She premiered what he made of it at Steppenwolf before bringing this revised version to Berkeley Rep.

The ancient tale has inspired retellings before, notably Archibald MacLeish’s 1958 J.B.  McCraney’s reverberant modern variation begins amidst strings of flickering lights that hint that the power is about to go out, and a steady rain that just won’t stop.  It leaks into widow Shelah Reynolds’ spacious, well-appointed house near the ever-changing mouth of the Mississippi River, geographically known as the “head of passes,” where land can suddenly shift or slide out of sight forever.

It’s Shelah’s birthday.  Though she doesn’t want a fuss. family and friends have gathered nonetheless: her three grown children, Aubrey and Spenser and her wayward daughter, Cookie. along with old pals, Mae and Creaker and his son, Crier, and her doctor, Dr. Anderson, who is privy to dire news about her health.  There’s another guest,  uninvited, called “The Angel.” that no one can see but her,   She thinks he’s come to deliver her to the promised land, but he rejects her readiness to head there.  “Not yet,” he says.

She’s required, it appears, to stick around a while longer, for a test of faith.

The nature of that test?  Her house is smashed by a flood, and the aftermath of the disaster decimates her children.  Bereft. she’s forced to bear unbearable loss while we witness her anguish.  What will happen to her faith in a God who seems to have crushed her under His thumb?

Head of Passes is a powerful work with a vibrant first act that mixes humor with ominous notes as the storm advances against Shelagh’s house and we see the cracks in her family, then proceeds to a shuddering second act in which, alone onstage except for that mysterious angel in the background, she muses in shocked dismay on what’s befallen her.

Tina Landau directs the gut-wrenching drama expertly, helped immeasurably by G.W. Skip Mercier’s remarkable set that breaks apart in the storm, and by Toni-Leslie James’s fine costumes, by Scott Zeilinski’s expressive lighting and by the sound design, marked by thunder and rainfall, of Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.

The cast fills the stage with life, headed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s Shelagh, whose second act monologue of bewilderment, anger and anguish, is a tour de force  She’s backed by an expert troupe : Francois Battiste (Aubrey), Jonathan Burke (Crier), James Carpenter (Dr. Anderson), Brian Tyree Henry (Spencer), Sullivan Jones (The Angel), Nikkole Salter (Cookie), Kimberley Scott (Mae) and Michael A Shepperd (Creaker).

Strong and memorable, Head of Passes plays on the Rep’s thrust stage until May 24th, followed by the London/New York hit comedy, One Man, Two Guvnors.  For tickets/information call 647-2949 or visit