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'The Whipping Man': Gritty, powerful and a can't miss production

Photo courtesy of Stages Repertory Theatre
Photo courtesy of Stages Repertory Theatre
Photo courtesy of Stages Repertory Theatre

“The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez made its regional premiere at Stages Repertory Theatre this weekend. In its 36th season, this production stays true to the previous high caliber standard this theater has set. This play takes audiences back to a time when the United States was still divided and half of the country fought to free slaves and abolish a horrific practice and the other half fought to maintain a way of life and keep their slaves.

Director Seth Gordon brings the best out of his cast and production as he brings this period piece to the stage. As the lights come up on the stage, the sets designed by scenic and properties designer Jodi Bobrovsky makes the audience feel as if they traveled back in time to the post-Civil War era. All elements come together perfectly to create the right atmosphere for the actors to bring out their very best performance.

The Whipping Man” tells the story of Caleb (Ross Bautsch), a confederate soldier, who has just returned home following the end of the Civil War. He finds his previous prosperous home, destroyed and abandoned except for a family slave named Simon (Shawn Hamilton). Another slave of the family, John (Joseph Palmore) arrives soon after Caleb's return. Caleb has been shot in the leg, it has gangrene, and Simon is forced to save his life by amputating it with John's assistance. The three remain in the decaying home awaiting Caleb's father and their previous masters return so that each can continue their lives.

This play takes a hard look at racism, oppression, abolition and basic human rights. Each character serves to display certain aspects of the larger society. Caleb is the son of a slave owner and his lifestyle is set out before him. He was a solider, for the losing side, yet struggles with deeper emotional issues that haunted him prior to ever serving. His father, never named or seen, has a place in the cast as well. His presence is ever present touching the lives of each character as each one must wait for his return before any of them can move forward in whatever direction their lives are taking.

Simon appears to be the slave that ran the house. He easily takes charge of the situation when Caleb returns and tends to him not out of service any longer, but of a basic human instinct of saving the life of a fellow human being. John, on the other hand, is a younger, more entitled feeling slave. He knows that slavery has been abolished and he is “free” though the ramifications of that have yet to sink in with him.

All three actors made their Stages debut with this play and commanded the stage with ease. Bautsch had many noteworthy moments on stage, especially following the “amputation” of his leg towards the start of the first act. That scene was both gruesome to watch, before the fade to black, and agonizing to hear his screams on stage. Hamilton is a seasoned profession and commands the stage with her performance. He is a strong, caring and tender actor and he portrays Simon completely from action to facial expression. Palmore, as the wise cracking, charismatic John is a fun yet deeply troubled character. Audiences both feel John’s struggles and wait to watch him mature on stage.

This play intermixes multiples themes and issues throughout the telling, and surprisingly Jewish religion as well. Caleb’s family was Jews and their slaves practiced the observance of this religion. The playwright meticulously weaves together, mostly with Simon and his faith, the Hebrews struggle as they made their way out of Egypt with the slaves, as they discovered they were finally free after the end of the Civil War. These religious elements heighten the already powerful and gritty play, bringing the suffering and struggle right into the audiences face.

Like all dramatic, socially conscious plays, this one remains relevant today if nothing else just as Simon speaks out “remembering” where we came from. History is not a class taken in school and forgotten once we leave the halls. It is our lives and our history that has shaped not only our society but also our nation. Overall, this play speaks to our humanity of treating people as equals and never forgetting where we came from that made us who we are today.

“The Whipping Man” runs now through May 25. Be sure to get your tickets while you can by visiting the website at www.stagestheatre.com, calling the box office at 713-527-0123 or purchasing them at the door. When visiting their site, be sure to read what's coming up in the 37th Season, as it was just announced. Find out how you can renew or purchase season subscriptions.