Story: The time is April 13, 1865, and Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon has returned to his family’s home in Richmond just four days after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy at Appomattox, Virginia. Caleb is the scion of a Southern Jewish family that has abandoned their home in the wake of the South’s surrender to the North.
The wounded Caleb soon is joined by Simon, one of the DeLeon’s former slaves, who also were Jewish, and then by another ex-slave named John. Simon informs Caleb that his week-old leg wound has led to gangrene and that he must be treated at the local hospital, which Caleb resolutely refuses to do. After Simon performs a makeshift, emergency amputation, the three men prepare for Passover Seder, which asks the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
As the trio of men grapple with their new status as ‘equals,’ some disturbing family secrets bubble to the surface concerning Simon’s missing wife and daughter, Caleb’s parents and John’s own troubled history, revelations that add personal torment to the political chaos around them.
Highlights: Playwright Matthew Lopez, a staff writer for Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series, The Newsroom, has seen his drama become perhaps the most-produced new play of the 21st century since its 2006 debut. A previous production at The Black Rep last year, in fact, was the #1 show on the Ladue News’ ‘Best of 2013’ theater list.
The current production at New Jewish Theatre is riveting and provocative in its own right under Doug Finlayson’s studied, careful direction. His talented performers inject Lopez’s script with keen interpretations that demonstrate the power and poignancy of this harrowing, haunting story.
Other Info: The set designed by John Stark features the forlorn remnants of a once stately mansion, now filled with debris and the echoes of a bloody conflict that has altered the lives of these characters. Properties designer Lauren Probst includes an authentic Passover Haggadah dated 1859 that is used for the men’s impromptu Seder, while Michael Sullivan’s lighting accentuates scenes with flashes of lightning or the subtle diminution of light as the amputation occurs.
Michele Friedman Siler contributes a savvy costume design that captures John’s zest for plunder, Caleb’s tattered uniform and Simon’s frayed wardrobe, while the sound design furnished by Robin Weatherall is an affecting collection of Civil War-era tunes, mostly mournful.
While last year’s Black Rep production was extraordinary, the New Jewish Theatre cast comprised of J. Samuel Davis, Austin Pierce and Gregory Fenner acquit themselves admirably. Fenner as John in particular is a revelation: When he recounts the savage treatment afflicted upon him by the title character and the reasons behind that abuse, he stomps his foot with increasingly emphatic power to underscore the brutality as well as the rage within him. Fenner utilizes the entire stage as he nervously bounds about, awaiting an inevitable fate.
Davis rushes a few of his more dramatic lines a bit too much, but his second-act reminiscence of President Lincoln in the wake of his assassination is touching and tender treatment, and he handles the prayers of the Seder with reverence and genuine gratitude. His caustic reference to his younger counterparts as “peas in a pod” has a particularly ironic intention.
As Caleb, Pierce has the most problematic character. Generally he’s able to convey the former slave-owner’s own troubled heart and dark background, although his angst could be more convincing.
Still, Finlayson is able to elicit two fine performances and one superior one from these three gifted players in a smoothly calibrated presentation that is engrossing throughout. Against the backdrop of the Civil War, The Whipping Man confronts us with uneasy and difficult questions that lead to no conclusive answers.
Play: The Whipping Man
Company: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: February 5,6, 8, 9, 12, 13, 15, 16
Tickets: $35-$39; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb