Story: Caleb has returned home, or rather what’s left of his home, following the conclusion of the Civil War. The Confederate soldier has been shot in the leg and is badly in need of surgery, but he resists the efforts of Simon, his former slave, to take him to the hospital in Richmond.
Simon is guarding the house while awaiting money promised him by his former master that he plans to use to help care for his wife and daughter. He considers the best way to treat Caleb’s wound and infection when they’re joined by John, another former slave of Caleb’s family, who brings much-needed food and other items he’s taken from local homes abandoned in the final days of the bloody war.
It so happens that Passover is near, and all three men are of the Jewish faith. While Simon scraps together the necessary items for a Seder meal, suspicions mount between Caleb and John as the former reveals some arresting truths that threaten to throw the uneasy trio into further turmoil and torment.
Highlights: Playwright Matthew Lopez is neither Jewish nor black, but as a gay man says that he relates to the isolation and ridicule experienced by both groups. That’s quite apparent in Lopez’ stark and provocative drama, which maintains its tense and taut tone throughout two acts in gripping and harrowing fashion. The Whipping Man has been one of the most produced plays in 21st century America since it premiered in 2006, and its St. Louis premiere at The Black Rep sizzles under Ed Smith’s probing and insightful direction.
Other Info: Smith harnesses the energy of his combustible trio of players to deliver a rich and rewarding theatrical experience. Key to the flavorful concoction he prepares is a powerful and persuasive performance by Ron Himes as Simon, whose age gives him patriarchal status among the three characters.
Himes, always an accomplished actor, here crafts a canny portrayal of a man who has seen much and endured more in his lifetime, yet never wavers in his faith in God. When Caleb expresses regret for the whippings his father and even he himself inflicted on their slaves, Simon responds, “You did it because you could.” It’s a simple statement of fact that cuts off any hope of forgiveness that Caleb harbors in the aftermath of the South’s defeat.
Ronald Conner, so combustible in The Piano Lesson and captivating in The Mountaintop earlier this season at The Black Rep, etches a finely wrought portrayal of the deceptive roustabout John, a man who has yet to earn the trust of Simon despite a lifetime of chances.
While John harbors understandable resentment over the painful memory of his treatment by Caleb’s family, he also has a penchant for skirting the law, with the logical consequences. Conner nicely captures both John’s affability and his immaturity in a way that plays smoothly off of Himes’ sagacious Simon.
As Caleb, Justin Ivan Brown makes the most of an immobility that is as much spiritual as physical. Caleb cannot get past his resentment over the war’s impact on his family and his way of life, even if he makes feeble attempts to understand the lifetime of torment endured by his family’s captive employees.
The dire predicament of these three men is accentuated by Mark Wilson’s haunting lighting design, which bathes the backdrop in a bloody red hue and keeps much of the action at center stage in subdued luminescence. Tim Case’s scenic design masterfully depicts the forlorn remnants of a once stately mansion, as tattered as the clothes in which Lou Bird dresses the three characters, and Robin Weatherall’s sound design underscores the severity of their situation.
Engaging and thought-provoking, the Black Rep’s production of The Whipping Man features expert direction and moving, mesmerizing performances by a cast that does finely wrought justice to Lopez’ penetrating character study.
Play: The Whipping Man
Group: The Black Rep
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: March 28, 29, 30, 31, April 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Stewart Goldstein