Monday, March 25, 2013

THE WHIPPING MAN • The Black Rep

Matthew Lopez's intriguing play about a Jewish family of sorts premiered in 2011 off-Broadway and garnered Lucille Lortel, Obie and Outer Critics Circle Awards, and it's getting a powerful production in its St. Louis premiere at the Black Rep.

Ron Himes (Simon), Justin Ivan Brown (Caleb DeLeon),
Ronald L. Conner (John)
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
The play takes place in Virginia just after the Civil War.  Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon (Justin Ivan Brown), has made his way back home, limping into his family mansion that has been all but destroyed by fire and artillery.  He's confronted by a black man with a shotgun.  They soon realize they know each other.  The man with the gun is Simon (Ron Himes), a newly freed slave of the DeLeon's who is staying behind to protect the family home.  From the looks of it though, there's not much of the family home left to protect.  Simon is also anxiously awaiting news of where his wife Elizabeth, and his daughter Sarah might be -- they were scattered along with the rest of the family in their attempts to find safer post-war locations.

Ron Himes (Simon), Justin Ivan Brown (Caleb DeLeon)
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
Simon notices that his former master has neglected a nasty gunshot wound to his leg, and tries to persuade him to go to the hospital before gangrene completely takes over, but Caleb refuses to go.  Caleb's infected leg is going to have to be amputated old school style, and Simon warns him that while it won't be pretty, Caleb's life might be spared.  While Simon gets busy gathering his tools and getting Caleb liquored up for the procedure, they're joined by a third man, John (Ronald L. Conner), another former slave and best childhood friend of Caleb's.  John has been making ends meet by "finding" items like clothes, whiskey, food and furniture from neighboring homes.  He and Simon are also staying close to the DeLeon house for the money that Caleb's father has promised them once they are freed.  While John is suspicious of Caleb's determination to steer clear of the hospital, he agrees to help Simon take care of Caleb's leg.

Ron Himes (Simon).
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
There's not much food, save for some celery that Simon has been growing and Caleb's horse that gave up the ghost just outside the house.  While reexamining their new relationships with each other in light of the Confederacy's defeat, John realizes that Passover is approaching, so Simon scrounges for what they will need for their Passover seder (commemorating the Israelites' exodus from slavery in Egypt).  So yeah.  You've got 2 black men, former slaves, and one white man, the young master and Confederate soldier, all Jewish, since Simon and John worship in the faith of their owners.

Now, Jewish African American slaves in the 1860's South isn't something that typically registers in the mind, but while Simon sings a few verses of "Go Down Moses", during the seder, the similarities between the Jewish and African American emancipations from slavery become apparent.

Their meal is meager -- celery and a bit of hardtack, a biscuit-like cracker from Caleb's military rations, and some uncooked collard greens for the bitter herbs.  With secrets to hide and sharp resentments harbored, Matthew Lopez judiciously doles out his exposition bit by bit over the course of the play, keeping the audience engaged up until its unexpected revelations at the end.

Justin Ivan Brown (Caleb DeLeon) in foreground.
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
Under Edward Smith's keen direction, the cast displays a tremendous chemistry.  Justin Ivan Brown turns in an impressive performance as Caleb, changed by the war, and still getting used to the new landscape of the world he lives in.  Ronald L. Conner gives John the crafty slyness and confidence of someone who always seems to land on his feet, but with a bitterness about his treatment by Caleb's father when he describes, in haunting detail, being dragged by the master of the house to "the whipping man" when he needed to be punished.  Ron Himes as Simon completely inhabits his role as a father figure to these two young men, and delivers an excellent performance filled with many layers throughout.  Tim Case's scenic design, complete with a chandelier hanging from a portion of ceiling with fallen plaster, makes a striking impression the minute you walk into the theatre.  Mark Wilson's lighting design is low at the start with flickering candlelights, and when coupled with Robin Weatherall's stormy sound design, they prove very effective, along with Lou Bird's complementary costume design.

Ronald L. Conner (John).
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
This thought provoking play should not be missed.  Check it out!  I'm not kidding.  It's playing until the 13th of April.


THE WHIPPING MAN

Written by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Edward Smith
Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
through April 13 | tickets: $20 - $47
Performances selected Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, Saturday April 13 at 2pm

Cast:
Justin Ivan Brown (Caleb DeLeon), Ronald L. Conner* (John) and Ron Himes* (Simon).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Tim Case; lighting design/projection by Mark Wilson; sound design by Robin Weatherall; costume design by Lou Bird; stage manager, Jim Anthony.

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