“In a season of Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ and Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained,’ we are pleased to bring to your own exploration of the War between the States...” says Janet Allen, Indiana Repertory Theatre artistic director, in the program for “The Whipping Man,” playwright Matthew Lopez’s gripping drama. It opened at the IRT Friday and runs through May 12.
And like the two films that Allen mentions, “The Whipping Man,” a Civil War–era drama that is one of the most produced plays in America, resonates with audiences because of its exploration of race, religion and ethics — all topics that elicit as much controversy today as they did back then.
The play, directed by Tim Ocel, is set in Richmond, Va., in 1865, at the close of the Civil War. Wounded in battle, Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon (Andrew C. Ahrens), son of a prominent Jewish family, returns to his bombed-out mansion where everybody has fled except for two of the home’s newly freed slaves, Simon (David Alan Anderson) and John (Tyler Jacob Rollinson).
Not only is the emotional reunion between the former master and slaves beyond awkward, it is often contentious and bitter as the three establish new roles and identities, settle old scores and reveal secrets that threaten to tear them apart and even endanger each of them.
But before all that takes place, Simon determines that Caleb, who has suffered a gunshot wound, will have to have his leg amputated because it has become gangrenous. After feeding him whiskey so that he can withstand the pain, Simon hovers over Caleb with a hand saw ready to cut off the diseased leg, while John holds the screaming, struggling patient down. The very anticipation of the surgery is terrifying enough without requiring audience members to endure any horrific special effects; instead, it mercifully allows them to rely on their imaginations alone. It’s a scene with a dramatic ploy so highly effective that it will linger in the viewers’ minds long after it is witnessed.
Much of the tension-filled interaction mentioned previously takes place later in the play, when the three unlikely companions hold a Seder to observe Passover, the religious observance of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. The fact that two former slaves, who consider themselves Jewish, are holding Seder with their former master is ironic enough. Then add that to the fact that this Seder takes place on the day that Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, dies from his wounds, suffered at the hands of John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre. Plot features such as this are what make Lopez’s play, with its stunning implications, so richly compelling.
Anderson was recently awarded the Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship by the Ten Chimneys Foundation. He demonstrated why he deserves such a prestigious honor through his stupendous performance as Simon, the loyal and stoic long-time DeLeon family servant, whose faith is unshakeable and intuition is keenly strong.
Anderson’s portrayal of Simon was particularly enthralling during the Seder, when his character leads the ritual and sings verses from the Negro spiritual “Go Down Moses,” with the intonation to “Let my people go,” making a potent connection between the Jews and African-Americans, who both endured slavery.
Rollinson gave a dynamic performance as John, the younger slave who was raised like a brother to Caleb but carries deep resentment for the fact that Mr. DeLeon subjected him to regular beatings at the hands of the town’s “whipping man.” A source of comedic relief, Rollinson’s mischievous John “discovers” sorely needed food and other items for the household when he “liberates” them from surrounding abandoned houses.
Ahrens was also strong as the vulnerable Caleb, who, having experienced the horrors of war, is forced to cope with the realities of a world that resembles little of the one he once knew. Ahrens was particularly affective during a moving soliloquy, delivered at the beginning of the second act, in which he longingly expresses his love for a woman he has left behind.
Erhard Rom’s set design, illustrating a once grand manor now in depressing ruin, recalled images of Tara, the beloved home of the O’Haras in the legendary film “Gone with the Wind.”
Also contributing to the somber mood of the piece were Dorothy Marshall Englis’ distressed period costumes and Kendall Smith’s lighting design that effectively captured the dimly-lit, bleak sadness of an environment destroyed by war and misery.
Composer Gregg Coffin’s music score incorporated recognizable sounds from the period, while thoroughly enhancing the dramatic action on stage and reinforcing both the intimate and wide scope of Lopez’s utterly fascinating story.
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