Most certainly Matthew Lopez has written a very imaginative and original play,The Whipping Man. And a fine cast at Omaha Community Playhouse does it justice on every level. Stephen Nachamie’s direction keeps everything vital and meaningful. The script, however, could stand some revisions, which it probably won’t get. Since the debut in 2006, there have been a number of productions; the present version is likely to be retained.
The three characters of the story remain well-defined throughout. Moreover Jeffery Stander’s set and Andrew Vance’s lighting make the playing space look and feel convincingly vast and hollow, creating a perfect sense of reality.
The premise has much promise. The most publicized center of the story concerns two ex-slaves and the son of their departed master trying to observe Passover in the ruins of shattered Richmond, immediately after the Civil War ended. All three are Jewish. Certainly Lopez wants to call attention to less-known historical facts, such as that there were Jews in The Confederacy. Moreover he seeks to show analogies between the tribulations of Moses’ people when in bondage and the bondage of black people in what had been a united United States. The question of faith. Moreover, he has taken up the charged subject of changed dynamics between such Southern white and black men. Along the way he fills in fascinating colorful background from the past.
The details about what occurred before the story’s present dominate what happens. They dwell mostly on gradually discussed complex events rather than on the dynamics of what is emerging in the dark present. An imminently gruesome amputation becomes one of the potentially graphic scenes; fortunately, it not seen in its entirety. The Seder is another quite active element, brief though it may be relative to what else is said and done.
These themes and others are touched on and discussed but development remains limited. Moreover, in the second act, several significant revelations surface but only in limited ways. Had those revelations occurred sooner, this play could have gone much deeper and more provocatively. As such facts keep on coming while the play winds down, it looks as if Lopez is suddenly piling on too many details too sketchily even if they underpin the motivations for present behavior and reactions.
Seriously wounded Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon staggers back to his home four days after Lee surrendered to Grant, the war not yet officially over. In the ruins of his family’s once magnificent house Simon, a kindly, older former slave remains. Shortly thereafter, John, a younger ex-slave member of the household shows up. Then the two black man with Caleb’s consent cut off his gangrenous leg. While talking about their lives before this reunion, Simon makes clear that his religious faith compels him to do everything he can to observe Passover. A Seder is begun but interrupted when new facts about the past surface.
Lopez’s choice to make the DeLeons having been less than harsh, cruel masters and to show Simon as a gentle, good man, defuses the potential for dramatic, dynamic, angry confrontations. Lopez does expose the fact that the DeLeons were far from always benign, especially having had John whipped by a man who specialized in such punishment. Given that man’s services more than once, you’d think that the black men, now clearly in control, given a weakened, bed-confined, one-legged ex- master, would feel free to do and say more and require atonement for such bygone history. That doesn’t happen.
Carl Brooks offers an excellent interpretation of Simon, confident and strong, with a warm soul. By contrast, as John, Luther R. Simon, stays a center of energy in the foreboding, gloom-inducing surroundings creating dynamic and charming dimensions. And Andy Prescott’s version of Caleb remains convincingly earnest, reflective and human.
Nachamie has provided admirable program notes about the history behind Lopez’s choice to deal with Judaism in the U.S at the time of the play. Moreover, an uncredited program book editor has added an equally informative timeline of relevant events of the same year, 1865. Further, an excellent lobby display deals with the origins and the rites of celebrating Passover.
You might want to know about the playwright. Matthew Lopez was born in 1978 and 28 years old when The Whipping Man was first performed. He received Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards and the John Gassner New Play Award from the New York Outer Critics Circle for this script. More at http://www.matthewlopez.com/bio.html. You’ll find an excellent interview with him at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/theater/28lopez.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Clearly many people have much admired what Lopez has done and intended to do in this instance, even if I have reservations.
The Whipping Man continues through Nov. 16 at Howard Drew Theatre, Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St.Thurs.-Sat.: 7:30 p.m. Sunday: 2 p.m. Tickets $22-$36. www.OmahaPlayhouse.org