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‘Head of Passes’ review: Phylicia Rashad shines in tragedy

Alana Arenas plays a defiant Cookie to Phylicia

Alana Arenas plays a defiant Cookie to Phylicia Rashad's Shelah, who tries to draw strength from a series of crises. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “Head of Passes”

WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

INFO $60; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org

BOTTOM LINE Phylicia Rashad triumphs in this updated Book of Job

If Phylicia Rashad had not already taken us on formidable journeys through the world of August Wilson and so many other formidable dramas, it would be tempting to call Shelah, the matriarch in “Head of Passes,” the role of a lifetime.

In fact, it is hard to imagine Tarell Alvin McCraney’s most atypical adventure without Rashad at the center of his updated Book of Job, which takes place one stormy night in a sprawling old house where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico. Although earlier versions of drama in Chicago and Berkley opened without Rashad in them, the roiling family tragedy is now dominated by her kaleidoscopic portrayal of this righteous, dying woman and her struggle with a cruel God.

It is the evening of her birthday, though she hates birthdays, and her sons, friends and two generations of loving house staff are trying to keep things light. To no one’s surprise, her wheezing cough is serious. But so is a faith that, as crises strike down her family, the waters rise and her house (spectacularly designed by G.W. Mercier) collapses around her, she peels off layers with the mercilessness of Greek myth.

Like the gifted playwright’s explosive trilogy, “The Brother/Sister Plays,” this one is set in the “distant present.” Unlike that 2009 epic and his other heavily stylized works, much of “Head of Passes,” knowingly directed by Tina Landau, seems to be a naturalistic, almost a straightforward family story. Shelah is surrounded by her two grown sons (embodied with subtle playfulness by Francois Battiste and J. Bernard Calloway), but yearns to see Cookie, the troubled young woman she raised as her own.

In blows Cookie, played with defiant vulnerability by Alana Arenas, just long enough to steal jewelry for dope and to hurtle accusations about Shelah’s nasty late husband. Then the rains come down, and worse, which leave Shelah with a mighty mad scene and a monologue of staggering intensity.

The playwright, raised in the Miami streets, trained at Yale and awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, gets closer to the dialogue-rich style of his mentor August Wilson. Wish he had given this one a title as inviting as his play.

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