TIM OCELhome.html



The Whipping Man

American Players Theatre, 2013

Charles Giuliano – Total Theater.com

On every level, the Indiana Repertory Theater production of The Whipping Man proves spot on. I had seen an intimate version of the Civil War-based drama at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires, but this staging, in a larger theater, a former downtown movie palace, is more enhanced, so there’s an entirely different feeling and context, which is totally absorbing.

From the first moment of this play, we’re enthralled by its superb technical presentation, the finely tuned direction of Tim Ocel which balanced three high voltage performances, and a truly fabulous set by Erhard Rohm.

A wounded Confederate Captain, Caleb (Andrew C. Ahrens) staggers into what’s left of a once elegant mansion on a prosperous plantation. He arrives in darkness (beautifully designed through the lighting of Kendall Smith). It is an ominous stormy night as enhanced by the sound design of Todd Mach Reichman and music composed by Gregg Coffin. Before Caleb utters a word, we are entirely drawn in. His first utterance is a wrenching gasp of pain as he collapses on the floor in a daze and clutches his wounded leg.

The single occupant of the abandoned mansion, a middle-aged black man Simon, played by the phenomenal David Alan Anderson, approaches with a lantern dangling from the end of a long rifle.

The initial impulse is for him to send packing this unwelcome intruder. There is a violent exchange then a poignant moment of shocked recognition. It seems that the soldier on the run (we gradually learn why) has unwittingly stumbled into his own home. Simon, now emancipated, is his former slave, mentor and father figure.

Out of old habit Caleb demands, not asks for, a glass of water. There is a moment of change on the part of Simon. With emancipation things are different. The war is over, and Lee has surrendered. Now that conditions are safe, former owners will gradually return to reclaim their ravaged properties.

The master/slave relationship is gone – soon to be replaced by the carpetbaggers of Reconstruction, the eventual backlash of the KKK, and endless decades of segregation. All of that will play out over time, but Lopez locates his brilliant and compelling drama on the cusp of those hateful and shameful transitions.

There is a legacy that he reveals embedded in the hearts, souls and social consciousness of all Americans. It ain’t pretty, and this is a play that one squirms through if you have a shred of decency.

A special twist is an exotic device that Lopez has threaded though his drama. The family of Celeb is Jewish. Here’s the rub: so is Simon. There is a false positive that Simon and his family have been brought up in the Hebrew faith of their owners. So there is a Biblical sense of bondage in slavery under the Pharaohs but also blacks under their slave masters, of which Caleb and his clan are neither better nor worse. One would think that a Jewish family would be more sensitive and humane but this is not the case.

The moral locus of the play resides in the wisdom, compassion and resilience of Simon. It is a great role for many regional actors with none better than Anderson. How has this amazing artist managed to be Indiana’s best-kept secret? His performance has both range and refinement, with nuances, shifts of emotion, and minute, realistic details.

As for the play itself, it’s abundantly evident why every regional theater in America wants to mount The Whipping Man for its hometown audiences. Of course, the Jewish thing is fascinating, too. Everyone wants to know just how plausible is scenario? Just what is the likelihood that former slaves, and the son of their master, would hunker down for a Passover Seder dinner? Try to imagine slaves keeping Kosher.

While Anderson is the glue that binds this production, there is superb work from Ahrens as the wounded Caleb, helpless after Simon’s crude but life-saving amputation, and the badass, thieving “Nigger” John performed with measured restraint by Tyler Jacob Rollinson.

One of Aristotle’s elements of drama is “reversal.” This is key to the drama. The three men are brought together in dynamic tension based on what was, the guilt and horror of the past, as well as the dark and uncertain prognosis of what lies ahead. How will the characters change and adapt beyond this binding moment of survival?

Reversal also embodies revelation. Caleb and John have secrets. Why did Caleb not seek proper medical attention? It has been five days since he was wounded at Petersburg, Virginia a “siege” fought from June 9, 1864 to March 25, 1865. In a riveting monologue, he describes the madness-inducing horrors of living in the muddy filth of trenches.

John taunts him that “you lost.” Caleb counters that John did nothing, and where did John get all that loot? What will happen when the law catches up with him? Simon hopes only to survive long enough to find his wife Elizabeth and daughter Sarah.

This is a very dark and moody play about dark times. It is also as good as theater gets.

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