On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House, at long last ending what is still the deadliest war in United States history. Five days later, President Abraham Lincoln was dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. And during this fateful week in our country’s history, Jews in both North and South observed Pesach, the festival of Passover, celebrating the freeing of the Israelites from centuries of slavery in Egypt.
Inspired by this bit of historical coincidence, and armed with the knowledge that there were indeed Jewish slaveholders (and Jewish slaves) in the pre-Civil War Deep South, playwright Matthew Lopez sat down to write The Whipping Man, a gripping, eye-opening look at three Jews—two black, one white—in the days just following Appomattox, now getting its Los Angeles Premiere at the Pico Playhouse.
The once stately Richmond, Virginia mansion of the DeLeon family has long since fallen into ruin when a wounded Caleb DeLeon (Shawn Savage) stumbles in late on the night of April 13 to find his family fled to safer havens and only the now freed Simon (Ricco Ross) and John (Kirk Kelleykahn) left behind to await the family’s eventual return.
It soon becomes clear to the 50something Simon that Caleb’s leg wound is far from superficial, gangrene below the knee making amputation the only option and Simon himself the only one able (and qualified by wartime experience) to accomplish the task with the aid of the three-decades-younger John.
Over the course of The Whipping Man’s harrowing first scene, one which ends mercifully with the first pull of Simon’s saw, Caleb becomes painfully aware of the toll the war has taken on his family residence and the people who once called it home. With virtually everything worth stealing having long since been pilfered away, Simon has had make do with the little that remains, while John scavenges for whatever he himself can “borrow” from neighboring homes.
As Caleb begins his slow recovery from makeshift surgery, Simon comes to the realization that the feast of Passover is upon them, thereby propelling The Whipping Man’s deeply moving second act, as three men united by faith commemorate the freeing of the Jews from slavery under the Egyptians even as American slaves celebrated their own liberation from centuries of bondage.
Heady stuff indeed, so much so that Lopez’s three-hander has gone on to considerable regional theater success since its 2006 World Premiere. In Caleb, Simon, and John, the talented young playwright has brought back to life an aspect of our history most of us hardly knew existed, and in so doing has surely opened eyes, provoked discussion, and inspired research into our collective roots.
He has also created three of the most fascinating characters you’re likely to see any time soon.
True, The Whipping Man can at times find itself veering into melodramatic seas, with each man harboring a deep, dark secret ripe for Act Two revelation. Still, this is gripping theater that both elucidates and entertains. (As Simon prepares the Passover Sedar Plate, he finds substitutes from the little there was on hand to serve as bitter herbs, lamb bone, and most interesting of all, of matzah.)
Impactfully directed by West Coast Jewish Theatre artistic director Howard Teichman, The Whipping Man’s Los Angeles premiere benefits too from its gifted cast and first-rate production design team.
It’s hard to imagine a more towering performance than the one given by stage-and-screen vet Ross as a man who, having spent over 50 Years A Slave, now experiences his first taste of freedom. (There’s a terrific moment when Simon tells his former master’s son, “All these things you’re telling me to do, by rights now you need to be asking me to do.”) There is great power in seeing an African-American finding strength in Judaism in the same way that we’ve seen other African-Americans strengthened by their Christian faith, and never more so than when Ross/Simon recites the words of the Torah, then breaks into “Go Down Moses” to tear-inducing effect.
Kelleykahn does impressive work as well, despite an early tendency to play John a bit too much for laughs. (I couldn’t help wondering if his “sassy black guy” take on the role might not be a tad too 21st Century for Civil War times.) Still, this is a performance that grows steadily in power and depth, Lopez’s script allowing Kelleykahn (who happens to be the grandson of the late, great Juanita Moore) to dig deep and reveal a young man finding his strength and his voice as a free American.
Last but most definitely not least is Theatre 40 mainstay Savage, whose comedic turn in Incorruptible won him an Outstanding Featured Actor Scenie some years back. The intensity of Savage’s performance in The Whipping Man’s first scene leading up to the loss of Caleb’s lower leg, the passion and depth he brings as he reads aloud a letter he has written to a woman he adores, and the agony he reveals at learning of the fate of someone he loves dearly add up to Savage’s finest work to date.
Scenic designer Kurtis Bedford’s meticulously designed set reveals the devastation wreaked by four years of war on a once proud, elegant South. Ellen Monocroussos scores top marks too for her evocative lighting, topnotch design work complemented by the equally fine contributions of sound designer Bill Froggatt, costume designer Michèle Young, prop designer Jean Himmelstein, makeup designer Kelsey Boutte, and fight choreographer Jessica Erin Bennett.
Having missed The Whipping Man’s 2010 West Coast Premiere at the Old Globe, I could not have been more delighted to get this second chance to catch Lopez’s unexpected glimpse into our American past. That the Pico Playhouse was filled with equal parts African and Jewish Americans experiencing the power of live theater together on the night I attended was icing on the cake.
West Coast Jewish Theatre, Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Through April 13. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 3:00. Reservations: 323 506-8024
March 20, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont