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. Coincidentally, 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 happenstance, 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, a play now brought to compelling life in a spectacular South Coast Repertory debut set to transfer next month to the Pasadena Playhouse.
The once stately Richmond, Virginia mansion of the DeLeon family has long since fallen into ruin when a wounded Caleb DeLeon (Adam Haas Hunter) stumbles in late on the night of April 13 to find his family fled to safer havens and only the just now freed Simon (Charlie Robinson) and John (Jarrod M. Smith) left behind to await the family’s eventual return.
It soon becomes clear to the venerable old 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 several-decades-younger John.
Over the course of The Whipping Man’s harrowing first scene, 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 to 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 profoundly 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 on any stage any time soon.
True, The Whipping Man can at times find itself veering into daytime dramatic seas, with each man harboring a deep, dark secret as ripe for Act Two revelation as any revealed on General Hospital or Days Of Our Lives.
Notwithstanding, this is gripping theater that both elucidates and entertains, as when Simon, preparing the Passover Sedar Plate, finds substitutes for bitter herbs, lamb bone, and most interesting of all, of matzah, from the little there is on hand.
Under the brilliant direction of South Coast Rep founding artistic director Martin Benson, this SCR/Pasadena Playhouse co-production could not be blessed by a more gifted cast nor a more superb design team.
Bringing to powerful life a man now experiencing his first taste of freedom after more than Fifty Years A Slave, Robinson matches his towering work as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman and his Best Actor Scenie-winning performance in August Wilson’s Jitney. There is tremendous power in seeing an African-American finding the same strength in Judaism that other African-Americans have found in Christianity, and never more so than when Robinson’s Simon intersperses the words of the Torah with “Go Down Moses” to deeply emotional effect.
Hunter, whose dazzling comedic turn in A Noise Within’s Cymbelline won him a Best Actor Scenie, demonstrates equally potent dramatic chops as Caleb, from the intensity of The Whipping Man’s devastating first scene to the passion and depth Hunter lays bare while reading aloud a letter he has written to a woman he adores to the agony we witness as he discovers the fate of someone he holds dear to his heart.
Opposite stage vets Robinson and Hunter, a dynamic, charismatic Smith exposes the heart and soul of a young black man finding his strength and his voice as a free American, giving a performance so polished that it seems hard to believe it is the Louisiana native’s professional theater debut.
Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s magnificently detailed set, one which reveals the every iota of the ruin wreaked by four years of war on a once proud, elegant South, has been lit to evocative perfection by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz. (Keeping Buderwitz’s design hidden until the curtain rises is an inspired directorial choice.) Michael Roth’s thrilling original music and electrifying soundscape and Angela Balogh Calin’s meticulously weathered costumes are as topnotch as designs get, with special snaps for John’s gradually dandified garb.
Kathryn Davies is stage manager. Andy Knight is dramaturg. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA.
That our two finest Southern California regional theaters are joining forces to allow Orange County and Los Angeles-area audiences to experience their combined excellence is news to be celebrated. That they are doing so with a co-production the caliber of The Whipping Man merits fireworks and cheers.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena. February 3 to March 5. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00, Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00. Reservations: 626 355-7529
January 12, 2015
Photos: Deborah Robinson/SCR