Wednesday, February 5, 2014

THE WHIPPING MAN • New Jewish Theatre

Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man" is currently playing at the New Jewish Theatre, and after a solid production at the Black Rep last year, we're lucky enough to have another opportunity to see this engrossing play in an equally strong showing.

It's 1865 in Richmond, Virginia, and in the midst of a thunderstorm, Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon (Austin Pierce) hobbles into his family home. The mansion has been picked almost clean and suffered heavy damage from the war, and after Caleb collapses on the floor, suffering from a wound to his leg, he finds himself facing the business end of a shotgun. The man on the other end is Simon (J. Samuel Davis), a former slave of Caleb's family, but now a free man, and they are happy to see each other. Simon has stayed behind to wait for his wife and daughter to return. They, along with Caleb's father, have gone to safer locations to wait out the post Civil War chaos, and once they are reunited Simon plans to build a house with the money his former master has promised him. A closer inspection of Caleb's week-old gunshot wound makes it clear to Simon that Caleb's leg will have to be amputated before the gangrene that has set in becomes too advanced.

Gregg Fenner (John), Austin Pierce (Caleb)
and J. Samuel Davis (Simon).
Photo credit: John Lamb
They're soon joined by John (Gregg Fenner), another former slave for the family who's been scavenging for goods in neighboring vacant houses. John was a childhood friend of Caleb's, but there's not much time for re-evaluating the relationship between the young master and his former slaves -- Caleb staunchly refuses to go to the hospital, so it's up to John and Simon to get Caleb as drunk as possible and amputate that leg. After the makeshift surgery is performed (to nice effect), John and Simon spend some time catching up with each other, and once Caleb regains consciousness, the underlying tension between these three hint at secrets and resentments that are exposed to us little by little. John and Simon worship in the Jewish faith of their masters, and John points out that as far as he can tell, Passover is approaching. The observance of the Jews' liberation from Egypt coinciding with the newfound freedom of Simon and John from slavery are affecting without being sentimental or corny, during a Passover seder that's prepared from the scraps they can find.

Director Doug Finlayson extracts the most out of every moment of every scene, with the help of a strong cast. Fenner as John is buoyant and sly, and has one of the most powerful scenes in his revelations about "the whipping man" of the title. Pierce turns in a sincere performance as Caleb, and will make you squirm during the well-staged amputation. Davis is compelling throughout as the older and wiser Simon, grateful and reverent while he's presiding over the seder, touching when he remembers meeting Abraham Lincoln weeks before he is assassinated, and abrasive in his harsh confrontations with the young men. John C. Stark provides a lovely set of this once grand old mansion with Michael Sullivan's lighting design, that ranges from heavy flashes of lightning to the subtle glow of lamp light. Robin Weatherall accentuates the evening with stormy sound design and Michele Friedman Siler's costume design and Lauren Probst's props round out the creative design beautifully.

Gregg Fenner (John), J. Samuel Davis (Simon)
and Austin Pierce (Caleb).
Photo credit: John Lamb
It's easy to not realize that thousands of Jews fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, not to mention the fact that there were many African-American Jews in the South. Lopez ties these facts together in a thought-provoking script that displays how these men are affected by the times they're living in, and if you've seen this play once, it's worth seeing again. It's up until the 16th.


Written by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Doug Finlayson 
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through February 16 | tickets: $35 - $39
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm, Sunday the 16th at 2pm

J. Samuel Davis* (Simon), Gregg Fenner (John) and Austin Pierce (Caleb).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by John C. Stark; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; sound design by Robin Weatherall; property design by Lauren Probst; dialect coach, Joanna Battles; stage manager, Mary Jane Probst.

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