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The Whipping Man

Indiana Rep/Geva Theater, 2013

Leah Stacy – Democrat and Chronicle

With its spellbinding humanity, The Whipping Man, being presented on Geva Theatre Center’s Mainstage through April 28, breaks Civil War history stereotypes and gives birth to conversations about the undocumented lives that were lived.

The show, written by Matthew Lopez, highlights diversity issues as it explores a Jewish Confederate soldier’s homecoming after the war ends. (On opening night, Geva presented the 2013 Essie Calhoun Diversity in the Arts Award — named for Kodak’s retired chief diversity officer and former VP — to the School of the Arts, the only arts-based middle and secondary school in the city.)

The play begins when Caleb de Leon (Andrew C. Ahrens) finds that his Richmond, Va., home has been abandoned by all but two former slaves (David Alan Anderson and Tyler Jacob Rollinson). The three men must negotiate their common Jewish faith and newfound freedoms, including the Passover celebration of Seder dinner.

Lopez starts with a simple period drama template and injects it with issues relevant to today’s audience: family, faith, freedom, prejudice and peace. Through the emancipated character John, he poses the biggest question of the show — “Were we Jews or were we slaves?” — and every minute of the two-hour production works to answer that query.

Director and Geva affiliate artist Tim Ocel, to his abundant credit, gives the actors ample creative license with Lopez’s brilliantly written scenes.

The intimate cast delivers distinct roles. Anderson plays a wise, fatherly Simon, who extends grace to his wounded former master. His impromptu, soaring version of “Let My People Go” during the Seder is a riveting moment. Ahrens and Rollinson are the wayward children, their dynamic at once conspiratorial and hostile. Ahrens remains immobile for most of the show, but his boyish desperation and honesty fill the space of the mansion. It’s Rollinson who provides much of the humor — though all three are profoundly hilarious during a scene involving horse meat — and an explanation for the show’s title, a responsibility he executes with adroit emotion.

Though the visible cast is only three characters, it soon becomes clear that there is a much larger ensemble at work. Composer and Geva affiliate artist Gregg Coffin has created an original score that blends effortlessly with sound design by Todd Mack Reischman. It takes on a life of its own and occupies tense silences among the three men.

Against a backdrop of soulful bluegrass tunes, the creaks and groans of the house offer impeccably timed commentary. The gentle, persistent hush of the rain (which falls throughout the entire production) provides a presence punctuated only by rolling thunder.

An expert technical crew painted, hammered and sewed the world of the The Whipping Man. Scenic designer Erhard Rom visualized the shell of a grand Southern mansion with smoke-streaked walls, shelled windows, and a massive hole burned in the second-floor ceiling. Costume designer Dorothy Marshall Englis weaves the story of John’s transformation through his increasingly refined clothing. Lighting designer Kendall Smith skillfully mimics candlelight and white flashes of lightning.

In the end, The Whipping Man is much more than a popular new period drama, though it’s been produced in more than 15 cities this season. It’s more than a production about slavery, war or Judaism. It’s a powerful ode to the fact, as Simon says, “There’s more than one way a man can be a slave.” And that’s a lesson for audiences everywhere.

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