Accomplished actress though she indisputably is, Phylicia Rashad is not someone who comes to mind when you think of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Ms. Rashad, after all, reigns in the American imagination as one of the ultimate wholesome maternal figures, a source of bottomless reassurance. Lear, even at his least unhinged, is anything but comforting.
But in her remarkable, pull-out-all-the-stops performance in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Head of Passes,” which opened on Monday night at the Public Theater, Ms. Rashad gives the impression that she could definitely hold her own on Shakespeare’s blasted heath. Portraying a sorely tested Southern matriarch, she can be found railing against God and the elements with a harrowingly Lear-like rage.
We have come a long way, in other words, from the living rooms of Clair Huxtable (of “The Cosby Show,” for which Ms. Rashad won two N.A.A.C.P. Image Awards) and Lena Younger (of “A Raisin in the Sun,” for which she won a Tony Award), where this actress memorably dispensed wit and wisdom. Never mind that for the first act of Mr. McCraney’s fascinating and uneven play, directed by Tina Landau, it appears as if we have traveled little distance at all.
The opening scenes of “Head of Passes” would seem to take place in the lucrative land of melodrama-tinged movie comedies, where a pious and dominating mother usually knows best. It is the birthday of the venerable Shelah (Ms. Rashad), and her adoring friends and children have assembled at her comfy home (once a bed-and-breakfast) to praise Mama, swap jokes, sing songs and sass one another.
But look twice and you’ll see fissures. A gulf-bred storm is howling outside. (The play’s title refers to the spot where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico.) The roof needs fixing, so it’s raining indoors as well. And the celebratory lights that have been strung across the parlor are crackling and expiring, one by one.
Aubrey (a dapper, officious Francois Battiste), Shelah’s elder son, shakes his head and remembers how he once thought this place a fortress. “But man, these houses, man,” he says. “They will disappoint you.” That turns out to be putting it mildly.
For what Mr. McCraney, the extravagantly gifted author of the “The Brother/Sister Plays,” is doing here is tearing down the warm and cozy house of feel-good African-American family portraits. That’s in both a symbolic and — thanks to a spectacularly self-destructing set by G. W. Mercier — a literal sense.
May the Lord forgive me (as Shelah would say, at least in the first act) for committing the sin of spoilers. But if you plan to see “Head of Passes” (and you should, since Ms. Rashad will be hard pressed to ever again top her work here), you need to know that there are surprises in store — and not just of plot but of tone and structure that make the patience-taxing conventions of the first act worth sitting through.
Those familiar with Mr. McCraney’s earlier work, much of which is written in a startlingly original impressionistic style, are likely to be bewildered at first here by the seeming kitchen-sink naturalism. Could it really be he who has conjured the slap-happy, whiskey-sneaking jokiness of Shelah’s boisterous clan as we initially see it?
What’s more, dark secrets — of hidden love, illegitimacy, Oedipal hostility and fatal disease — are revealed in a style that would have felt quaint even in the days of Henrik Ibsen. There’s even a “gotcha!” visual of blood on a white handkerchief.
Commissioned by the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, where the play was staged in 2013, “Head of Passes” has since undergone considerable revisions. (The character of a cryptic, perhaps heavenly stranger has been eliminated.) But the script could still use some fine-tuning to make the sucker punch of the second act land with maximum clout.
But even as the play stands, you’ll look back and marvel at how Mr. McCraney and this expert production team — which includes Toni-Leslie James (the class-defining costumes) and Jeff Croiter (the biblical lighting) — have set you up. That’s partly the art of Ms. Landau (a Steppenwolf director with an impressively adventurous résumé) and her top-drawer cast.
You’ll come to realize how each characterization has been marbled with resentment. The loud bonhomie of Spencer (an excellent J. Bernard Calloway), Shelah’s younger son, and Mae (a vivacious Arnetia Walker) come to register as forms of passive aggression.
John Earl Jelks (as a family employee) and Kyle Beltran (as his rebellious son), and Robert Joy (as a doting family doctor) endow their parts with just enough quirky creepiness to hold your attention. And as Cookie, the clan’s prodigal daughter, Alana Arenas delivers a sneaky, snaky portrait of a damaged woman that threatens to blow the roof off the place all by itself.
Ultimately, though, it’s Ms. Rashad’s deeply felt, expertly shaded Shelah that gives the play its essential emotional continuity. I mentioned Lear earlier, but the more obvious prototype for this character is Job, the archetypal man of faith brought low by relentless affliction. read more at nytimes.com