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The Whipping Man

American Players Theatre, 2013

Herbert M. Simpson – Total Theater.com

Maybe The Whipping Man, Matthew Lopez’s disturbing U.S. Civil War/ Passover Seder/ racial discrimination/ miscegenation/ religious controversies/ assassination/ animal mistreatment/ violence/ male bonding/ love-hate story requires a co-production by two first-rate theaters. It certainly has enough thematic elements to furnish a whole theatrical season of plays. And since I saw this production at Indiana Repertory Theater and am writing about it before the identical production opens at Geva Theater Center, my home theatre in Rochester, NY, I should offer a spoiler alert for those who have not yet seen it onstage.

But first I should note that this admirable production is a significant example of a growing trend among our best regional theaters: co-productions are sharing costs and therefore can afford more expensive works, which has also led to developing creative alliances. This production’s director, scenic designer, lighting designer and composer have creative connections to both theaters and a background of several different new works for both.

The Whipping Man ranges from ordeal to genuine emotional involvement, presenting history, fantasy, comedy and tragic horror. We begin with the forceful entry of a painfully wounded, limping confederate soldier into an empty-seeming wreck of a once-elegant mansion in Richmond, Virginia. Caleb attempts to stand on his left leg and falls to the floor, screaming in pain. Next Simon, an elderly African American man points a rifle at the young white man to protect the property, but they recognize each other as young master and household slave.

The long, wrenching scene that follows explicitly simulates the removal of a bullet from Caleb’s leg and then, when his exposed leg is seen to be gangrenous, and Caleb refuses any contact with a doctor or hospital, Simon’s cutting off Caleb’s leg below the knee. That operation begins to take place onstage after John, a strong, surly young black man roughly Caleb’s age, returns, unexpected, to the mansion, and Simon forces him to hold the screaming Caleb down. But they first make Caleb drunk with liquor John has stolen, and also use the liquor to sterilize the wound, a more than painful procedure. How’s that for a spoiler alert? But I was not alone in looking away and holding tight to get through that scene. And I assure readers that staying on through the play’s forceful acting out of the next two days is well worth the strain. The surprises have only begun.

Caleb and John reveal their close, difficult relationship as almost brothers but also master and slave. Caleb will later reveal his love affair with Simon’s daughter, who is now missing with her mother and presumably with Caleb’s father who was protecting his beloved slaves. Not until later does Caleb tell Simon he is expecting to reunite with Simon’s daughter and has impregnated her. And only at the climactic end does John tell them that Caleb’s father has sold the two women as slaves.

And if there’s not enough plot complication here, they hear about Lincoln’s assassination and know about the freeing of slaves. And how about the revelation that every character thus far mentioned is Jewish? We get a whole Passover Seder, of sorts, in the final act, led by Simon who not only chants the prayer for wine in Hebrew and makes Caleb ask the “Four Questions,” beginning “Why is this night different from other nights?”; but also delivers the answering section and sings, “Go down, Moses / Way down in Egypt land. / Tell ole Pharaoh / To let my people go!” There’s also an interminable horsemeat-chewing scene, and a violent fight.

The title is about the brutal man who whipped the slaves and left permanent scars on their backs; Simon and John were sent to him by Caleb’s father, who made young Caleb watch. There aren’t any fireworks or tap-dancing, but I think there’s enough variety and controversy here to keep anyone from dozing off.

Erhard Rom’s large, haunting set and Kendall Smith’s wonderfully evolving lighting dramatically support Tim Ocel’s moody, strangely real, stylized direction to make this production an unforgettable experience. I suppose that Simon’s is the richest and most dominant role, so David Alan Anderson has some edge in playing him. And I know from previous performances what a fine actor he is. But the three actors are all first rate.

John is something of a scoundrel, but Tyler Jacob Rollinson manages to suggest the turned-bitter decency of an abused, basically sympathetic man. And Andrew C. Ahrens will break your heart reading the tattered love letters to his slave-girl “wife” that Caleb carries next to his heart.

Yes, some of The Whipping Man is as melodramatic as it sounds here. But the play grippingly explores a number of serious elements of beliefs, behavior, and still-divisive American history by focusing on three very human characters caught in lives of bewildering comedy, tragedy, hate and affection.

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