Phylicia Rashad and J. Bernard Calloway in ''Head of Passes, directed by Tina Landau, at the Mark Taper Forum.
Phylicia Rashad and J. Bernard Calloway in Head of Passes, directed by Tina Landau, at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum.
(© Craig Schwartz)

Throughout Act 1 of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Head of Passes, now at the Mark Taper Forum, Phylicia Rashad plays a religious woman on her last legs who chooses her birthday to unravel family secrets. Nothing in that act prepares audiences for the awe-striking flow of passion that emits from the famous actor in Act 2 as she spews fury at God in a stream of consciousness that would wear out a teenager. In Rashad's hands, this 20-minute monologue is one of the most gripping scenes of the modern stage.

In a vacant bed-and-breakfast in the Deep South, the family of the owner, Shelah (Rashad), gathers to surprise her for her birthday. A torrential rainstorm causes flooding in the house, putting a damper on the occasion and ripening family tensions. The entrance of estranged stepdaughter Cookie (Alana Arenas) unleashes the wrath of God upon the family, turning Shelah into a modern-day Job.

The play settles into a family drama that audience will recognize as cut from the same cloth as dramas by Eugene O'Neill and August Wilson. Almost a parable, the second act mostly features Shelah's tirade, and though many of the words emit as babble, in the hands of a master like Rashad, the monologue is jaw-dropping.

Head of Passes lends some powerful moments to Rashad's costars as well. Arenas is heartbreaking as the stepdaughter who harbors the most family demons. Though her character has (stereotypically) long ago drowned into a sea of drugs and unwanted pregnancies, Arenas brings dignity and rage to the role. Kyle Beltran is heartfelt as the sweet young boy trying to understand his father while attempting to go his own way with a singing career. Beltran shows off his lyrical pipes during small moments in the show, like when he sings while walking through hallways. J. Bernard Calloway brings humor to the brash eldest son who says what's on his mind to everyone's chagrin.

Director Tina Landau gives Rashad room to spin into a hurricane. Her light touch with some of the other actors, though, leads to a few uneven performances, particularly John Earl Jelks, who punctuates his dialogue with his open palms and offers a stiff performance in the first act.

Toni-Leslie James's costumes illustrate the family's middle-class pride and struggles, with everyone dressing respectably but not opulently. Lighting designer Jeff Croiter and sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen turn the Taper into the eye of a storm with flashing lightning and pounding thunder and rain sounds. G.W. Mercier's remarkable set almost allows the audience to smell the rot and mold. Rain pours in through the roof of the B&B, towers tilting, and flooring sinking as the house fills with water.

Phylicia Rashad blinds the audience with her electricity in a play that starts off as a tried-and-true family drama with all the skeletons ready to appear before it evolves into a tour de force. Head of Passes gives a talent like Rashad's a true opportunity to shine.