The Whipping Man: a Startling and Intriguing Evening of Theater.

I went to the opening night of The Whipping Man with no idea of what it was about. I experienced a startling and intriguing evening of theater.

 

The Whipping Man, written by Matthew Lopez and directed by Kimberly Senior, opened on January 25th at Northlight Theater in Skokie, Illinois. The play is set at the very end of the Civil War, April 1865, in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, a city destroyed by its own army. We are in the ravaged, looted home of the DeLeons, a wealthy slave-owning Sephardic Jewish family who had brought their slaves into Judaism as well.

 

 

The South surrendered in April 1865. The Jewish celebration of Passover began the next day. Author Matthew Lopez says reading “[This was a] eureka moment. As these slaves were being freed in the American South, there was this ancient observance of the Exodus story.” The ritual meal and symbolism of the Seder that celebrates the beginning of Passover are at the heart of the play. The words of the ritual bring out the parallels between the histories of Jews and African-Americans as the characters deal with the question of what the sudden freedom of the slaves means to each of them.

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The play opens with Caleb DeLeon (Derek Gaspar), a badly wounded Confederate soldier, drags himself soaking wet into his ruined home, abandoned except for the loyal former slave Simon (Tim Edward Rhoze), who has come back to wait for the return of his wife and daughter as well as his former owners. Simon, a devout Jew, says a Hebrew prayer of thanksgiving that Caleb has returned alive from the war. Almost immediately, he and Caleb have to deal with the realignment of their relationships as Caleb gives orders and Simon reminds Caleb that he is a free man. 

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Simon has worked in a hospital; he insists on looking at Caleb’s leg, sees a bullet hole, and recognizes the wound has become gangrenous. He tells Caleb the leg must be amputated at the hospital. Caleb vehemently refuses. As Simon leaves to prepare what little food there is, Caleb hears a noise outside – a noise made by the third character in the play, John (Sean Parris), also a former slave from the household. When Simon recruits John to help him with the amputation, John wonders why Caleb won’t go to the hospital and begins to uncover the first of the secrets revealed as the play continues. Simon and John are fully aware of their new status – they have chosen to help Caleb.  He tries again to give them orders, but quickly learns that he is no longer master.

 

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The next day, Simon realizes that evening is the first night of Passover and we find out that John is also a Jew, while Caleb has lost his faith because of his experiences in the war. Through Simon’s attempt to construct a Seder with substitutes for the symbolic foods but complete with a hagaddah (the book, read at every Seder, that retells the story of Exodus and explains the Seder ritual and meal), the characters and audience come into a new awareness of the meaning of this story of freedom as Simon says the words from the haggadah from memory, interrupting John, who has started to read them: "Let all who are hungry come and eat," he says. "Let all who are in need come celebrate Pesach [Passover]. This year we are slaves, next year we may be free." But the fredom to act, to make decisions, after one has been enslaved is not easy.

 

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Simon could easily have been merely a sentimental character, but Tim Edward Rhoze plays him with a dignity, quiet strength and self-awareness that helps us to understand why, although free to leave to find his wife and child, he stays in the house and is willing to help Caleb. Derek Gaspar’s Caleb, limited to a chair after the amputation, seems to embody the failure of the South. He is completely vulnerable and must depend on the two men whom he once owned. Caleb was scarred first by his family’s compliance with Southern practices despite being practicing Jews who, as Simon points out, the Bible says should not enslave other Jews; further wounded emotionally and physically by the war, Caleb learns more than he wants from his two former slaves.

 

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Sean Parris’s John is so smart, sly and full of energy and hope that we wonder why he has stayed near the house. Throughout the play, it is John’s questions – of Simon’s willingness to help Caleb, of Caleb’s presence in the house, of Caleb’s knowledge of the bitterness of the slaves’ lives even in the ‘liberal’ DeLeon household – that untangle the family secrets and invite us into the story of the play. Through his questions, we learn who The Whipping Man is and his significance in the lives of these three, what the war has done to Caleb, why Simon’s wife and child haven’t returned, and most important the truths about the relationships among these men.

 

The sense of ruin and uncertainty is made real by Jack Magaw’s excellent set – a room empty except for one torn chair, a door half off its hinges, falling plaster and wallpaper, holes in the floor. Christine Binder’s flickering candles and sunlight through dirty windows barely lift the gloom, and Christopher Kriz’s almost constant sounds of rain effectively intensify the awareness of the devastation of war.

 

The Whipping Man will run at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie, from January 18 to February 24, 2013. Tickets are $25 - $72; student tickets are $15. Box office 847-673-6300 or at www.northlight.org.

 

All photos by Michael Brosilow.

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