Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Though set at the end of the Civil War, over 150 years ago, The Whipping Man raises questions that continue to plague our national dialogue about race and religion. It is April, 1865 and Caleb DeLeon, the son of a Jewish merchant and a battle-ravaged Civil War veteran, barely has made it back to his family's home in Richmond. The house has been ransacked and the rest of Caleb's family are in hiding. The only other person there is the elder Simon, one of the DeLeon's slaves. Or, more properly, former slaves, since the Confederacy's surrender at Appomattox just days earlier sealed the fate of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln two years before. Caleb has a bullet wound in his leg, and gangrene has begun to consume the untreated limb. Simon wants to take Caleb to the federal hospital, but Caleb will have none of it. He orders Simon to bring him water, and Simon responds "Yes, I could do that". Not unkindly, but with emphasis on their altered relationship.
Not long after, John, another former DeLeon slave, arrives with whiskey and other provisions he has "liberated" from the abandoned homes of neighbors. John and Caleb are the same age and grew up together, playmates in their childhood until their different stations in life put an end to that. It is clear from things both Caleb and Simon say that John has always been an upstart. Having his former playmate/master lying helpless suits him fine. Simon insists that the only way Caleb will survive is to amputate his leg and he convinces John to assist in the grueling surgery.
John, Simon, and Caleb all have secrets, and each wonders what drew the others to the wreckage of their home. This is filtered through the lens of their shared Jewish faith, for as slaves in the DeLeon home, Simon and John were raised to be Jews (just as slaves in Christian homes had Christianity impressed upon them). Citing a passage from Deuteronomy, John questions how a Jew can enslave another Jew, and demands to know whether he is, in truth, slave or Jew. It is April, the month of Passover, and their verbal crossfire culminates in a makeshift Seder, the Jewish celebration of deliverance from slavery.
The Whipping Man builds suspense from its opening through two acts, as the fates of Simon, Caleb, and John hang in the balance. Matthew Lopez has written dialog that feels authentic and recognizes the past lives of his characters, while devising a fully absorbing plot that continues to raise the stakes and increase the injury done to these three men, victims as much of their time and place in history as of the choices they have made.
Wingert, a consummate actor, directs her cast to fully inhabit their characters, creating a sense of relationships that run far deeper than the slice visible in the play. Part of the production's suspense comes from the continuous widening of that slice, letting us see more of what has gone down between these three men. Her cast is exceptional. Warren Bowles, bringing an esteemed career both as actor and director to the role of Simon, conveys the quiet dignity that has enabled him to survive the cruelty of servitude. He is in for the long game, not about to be ruffled by the demands of the moment, until the bottom drops out and his countenance turn to straw. JuCoby Johnson plays John as a strutting rooster whose feathers have all been plucked, trying to hold on to his edge even as the world is closing in on him. I have seen Johnson do excellent work in five plays over the past year, each outing better than the one before. As Caleb, Riley O'Toole creates the very portrait of a man deluded into believing that his emotions are pure and his intentions are good, raised in denial of the malice he perpetuates. Yet, his panic and fear are visceral, especially when his leg is about to be cut off, and he realizes he has no control over his pain or his future.
The thrust of The Whipping Man is in the characters and the words between them. It could be effectively mounted in a bare black box. Yet, Michael Hoover has designed a beautiful set, the shelled-out front hall of a once grand town home, an elegant staircase curving upward with just a trace of its ornate bannister remaining. Paul Epton's lighting design and Anita Kelling's sound design deepen the aural and visual tone of the piece, with the sounds of a storm, lightning bolts, and changing magnitudes of candlelight adding shadows of uncertainty to the fearsome nights. Andrea Gross's costumes seem to represent the fallen state of each man's life, though John tries to forestall the inevitable by wearing a dapper suit, something else he "liberated."
The Whipping Man is a powerful play that gives a sock to the gut, and leaves one with more questions than answers, questions that people of conscience have been asking since long before this truncated Seder at the DeLeon home. It has been given an exquisite production, acted with sensitivity and conviction. This is a solid success for Minnesota Jewish Theater, and an unforgettable encounter with a past that continues to haunt us.
The Whipping Man continues through February 17, 2017, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tickets: $34.00 - $20.00; Student Rush tickets - $12.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.
Written by Matthew Lopez; Director: Sally Wingert; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Andrea Gross; Lighting Design: Paul Epton; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Properties Design: Rick Polonek; Makeup Design: Paran Kashani; Stage manager: Jorge Rodriguez
Cast: Warren C. Bowles (Simon), JuCoby Johnson (John), Riley O'Toole (Caleb DeLeon).