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The Whipping Man
by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Doug Finlayson
New Jewish Theatre
January 30, 2014

Gregory Fenner, J. Samuel Davis, Austin Pierce Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Gregory Fenner, J. Samuel Davis, Austin Pierce
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, which was first performed in 2006, has quickly become very popular among regional theatre companies, with many productions being staged around the country.  In fact, The Black Rep presented a critically acclaimed production here in St. Louis just last year, which I didn’t get to see.  My introduction to the play is this current production at the New Jewish Theatre, and it’s easy to see why this play gets produced so often.  It’s a fascinating, extremely well-written play that manages to shed new light on an oft-covered subject–the Civil War and its aftermath, and the New Jewish Theatre has brought the era to life vividly and with great depth and clarity with this first-rate production.

The story begins in April, 1865, in the days immediately following General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, which brought an official end to the war. The place is the former Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, as the severely injured young Confederate officer Caleb DeLeon (Austin Pierce) returns to his family’s home–a once-stately mansion that has been reduced to a shattered, dilapidated shell, along with many of the neighboring homes. Food is scarce and many in the area have been reduced to looting and scavenging for food. Caleb’s family is away and all that remains are two of the family’s former slaves, Simon (J. Samuel Davis) and John (Gregory Fenner), who have been brought up in the family’s Jewish faith. As the  gravity of Caleb’s injury becomes more apparent, the three men–the mature, resourceful Simon and the younger, more impulsive and opportunistic John, along with the the battle-scarred Caleb–are forced to deal with not only the immediacy of the wound, but with many other pressing issues concerning their relationships to each other and the upended society around them.  This all coincides with the Jewish holiday of Passover, as Simon is preparing to conduct the traditional meal–the Seder–to remember the occasion.

This is a very densely plotted story, and a whole lot happens during the course of the play, as Simon, John and Caleb grapple with their changed situations and relationships, as well as some startling revelations concerning the family and Simon’s wife and daughter.  All the while, the Seder preparations are made and Simon, who is unable to read but has committed the ritual to memory, emphasizes the parallels between the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and the emancipation of the African-American slaves in the American South. There are also questions of identity, as Simon and John question their roles in the family and their Jewish identity (are they family, or are they outsiders?) Caleb questions his very belief in God after having witnessed the sheer horror of battle, and both Caleb and John deal with their own secrets from their recent past that threaten to be exposed.  There is also the shock of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination to deal with, and this news adds gravity and urgency to the Passover observance.

Such an intense and involved show requires a top-notch director and cast to bring out all the poignancy and drama, and this production delivers.  The action is tightly staged, with the tension and drama perfectly pitched in scenes like a makeshift surgical procedure early in the play, to the powerfully realized Seder scene, to the intense conclusion.  There are moments of humor and music in the midst of the gripping drama as well, and all of these moments ring true, with Davis’ strong voice lending vibrancy to the traditional spiritual “Go Down Moses” in the Seder scene.  Davis makes a strong impression as Simon, with a palpable sense of strength, energy, compassion, and dignity as well as genuine grief over President Lincoln (“Father Abraham”, who Simon also likens to Moses) and righteous indignation when the situation calls for it.  Simon is the moral center of this play, and Davis more than lives up to that task.  Fenner is also impressive as the younger, more cynical and directionless but  thoughtful John, displaying a mixture of cynicism, suspicion, grief and sensitivity, and Pierce delivers a strong performance as Caleb as well, balancing anger, fear and nostalgia along with the sense of privilege he is unable to deny and that brings even more conflict into an already tense atmosphere.  All three actors bring a strong sense of chemistry to the stage, making their scenes together all the more riveting.

In addition to the excellent acting and strong staging, the technical aspects of this production also shine.  John C. Stark’s meticulously appointed set brings the crumbling post-war mansion to life, and the  richly detailed costumes (designed by Michele Friedman Siler) were all well-crafted and evocative of the era, and little details like the era-specific tools, dishes, and whiskey bottles, as well as the genuine 1859 Passover Haggadah used in the Seder scene added to the authenticity of the post-Civil War atmosphere. The lighting (designed by Michael Sullivan),  sound (designed by Robin Weatherall) and special effects (such as a surprisingly realistic thunderstorm) were also impressive. Kudos to Technical Director Jerry Russo and the entire design team and technical crew for this fully realized re-creation of time and place. 

The Whipping Man is a historical play, but it’s no dry lecture or two-dimensional documentary.  It’s a living, breathing piece of theatre that introduces fascinating and complex characters and takes the audience along on their journey of self-discovery.  It deals with difficult and important questions, of hope, grief, equality, war, peace and freedom, and how those issues effect and change relationships among people and in society at large.  It’s a brilliant play, and this production at the New Jewish Theatre lives up to that brilliance.  This is the first production I’ve seen by this company, and I look forward to seeing more of  their work in the future.

J. Samuel Davis, Austin Pierce and Gregory Fenner Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Gregory Fenner, J. Samuel Davis, Austin Pierce
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

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