The Whipping Man Theatre Review –A “Man” Who Soars Free in Southern California

Simon (Charlie Robinson, r) shares his story as John and Caleb (from l to r: Jarrod M. Smith and Adam Haas Hunter) listen

(Costa Mesa, CA) January, 2015 – The American Civil War left a deep, ragged scar in our country’s history. From 1861 to 1865, a total of 620,000 soldiers were killed, resulting in it becoming one of the bloodiest wars the United States has ever experienced. But accompanying the scar comes memory, healing, and hopefully wisdom. More and more hidden facts about the war are still being unearthed to this present day. One such fact that playwright Mathew Lopez revealed in his play, “The Whipping Man,” was there were 25,000 practicing Jews living in the southern states at the time of the war, all of which were both prominent Confederate families and their African American slaves. One of the most profound historical events with relation to this fact occurred on April 10, 1865. On this date, the day following General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Jews across the nation celebrated Passover, commemorating their ancestors’ freedom from slavery in Egypt. Very appropriate and prophetic, indeed. And this parallel symbolism is deftly illustrated in Lopez's latest work at South Coast Repertory. This multidimensional story about freedom, traditions and redemption is brought to life in incredibly dynamic ways, thanks to Lopez’s layered writing, Martin Benson’s tight direction and the talented cast, lead by SCR veteran Charlie Robinson.

John (Jarrod M. Smith, r) confronts Caleb (Adam Haas Hunter, l)

At a ruined mansion in Richmond, Virginia, young Confederate Captain Caleb DeLeon (Adam Haas Hunter) stumbles through the open doors, seriously wounded. It’s a few days after Lee’s surrender and Caleb’s only desire was to return to his family home. When he sees Simon (Charlie Robinson)---one of his family’s former slaves---inside the mansion, Caleb realizes he accomplished his quest: He has returned home…or what is left of it. Simon discovers Caleb’s wounded leg, which has turned gangrene and must be amputated. With the help of another former slave, John (Jarrod M. Smith), Simon successfully removes the diseased leg and Caleb survives. As time goes on, all three men discover that it is Passover. Both slaves are devout Jews who were taught by their masters about the faith. Ironically enough, Caleb lost his own faith in God after his experiences in the war. But this doesn’t dissuade Simon as he and John plan to celebrate this holy time of their ancestors’ freedom from Egypt, which perfectly coincides with their own freedom. However, all three have secrets that are brimming to come out. And when they do, none of them will ever be the same again.

Caleb (Adam Haas Hunter) recites a letter to his true love

The teamwork between Martin Benson’s fluidic direction and Lopez’s tautly rhythmic dialogue is such a pleasure to behold because both have elevated this story beyond a simple three-man play at the delightfully intimate Julianne Argyros stage. Instead, it has elements of a small epic historical drama that both entertains and educates the audience. Benson wisely utilizes the expert visionary eye of Scenic Designer Thomas Buderwitz’s burned out mansion, whose skeletal, gothic-like frame seems to symbolize the overall state of the country after the war. Benson also calls on the magical ear of Michael Roth’s musical score, whose somber horns and slow percussion seem to frame the story as though it were a sepia toned picture of that time. Lopez’s textured characters and deft dialogue are dynamically brought to life on the stage; they feel right at home in the ruins. He delicately balances his story between the play’s suspenseful moments and its scenes of quiet and joyous celebration during the Passover scene. Lopez expertly shows what this sacred time is all about in such a way that the dialogue doesn’t feel didactic or expositional; he expands the horizons of those in the audience who are unfamiliar with Judaism while still entertaining them with a plot that has its own nice shares of twists and turns.   

Caleb (Adam Haas Hunter, r) begs Simon (Charlie Robinson) for forgiveness

But it is the acting that ties the entire production together in a neat little bow. As always, Charlie Robinson’s stage presence and craft as an artist is always powerful in every performance he has done at SCR, especially in the title role of last year’s “Death of a Salesman.” Robinson’s Simon is a wise man who backs his words with his actions when it comes to his faith. Although scarred and beaten by Caleb’s family in the past, he foregoes anger and thoughts of vengeance and delves into grace and forgiveness, but still maintains his strength and especially dignity when Caleb selfishly forgets that the war is over and that Simon is no longer a slave; he deservedly puts Caleb in his place a couple of times, but not allowing rage or bitterness to enter the picture. And his comic timing, especially with co-star Smith, is wonderfully nuanced, which lightens the dark tones of the play. One of Robinson's  finest scenes was when he shares the first and only time he met President Abraham Lincoln. It’s a heartbreaking moment and when he emotionally explodes towards the end of the play regarding one key secret that is revealed, his artistry comes into full bloom once again. It’s another career-defining moment for this profound actor.

Hunter and Smith, as Robinson’s Simon says so many times, are “two peas in a pod” in terms of their approach and their exquisite talent as actors. Hunter shows Caleb’s physical and emotional amputation, which is interspersed with guilt about his family’s treatment of the slaves and the true reason why he won’t go to an army hospital to get treated. His self hatred serves as a nice balance for Smith’s Jarrod, who survives by “discovering” instead of stealing merchandise that was abandoned during the retreat. Smith humorously spars with Robinson’s Simon without losing respect for the older man, while his resentment towards Caleb is actually shown with subtle compassion without making John appear as a villain. There are good reasons why John mistreats Caleb, but Smith wonderfully shows that John is still a slave: Iinstead of being in chains, John is a slave to his own anger and lack of maturity regarding simple responsibility of one’s own actions. All three artists make up a wonderful triumvirate in this work, making “The Whipping Man” one of the best productions during SCR’s 2014/2015 season.     


Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, journalist and voice over artist.

The Whipping Man runs from January 4-25, 2015

South Coast Repertory: Julianne Argyros Stage

655 Town Center Drive

Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197

In association with the Pasadena Playhouse

Photos by Debora Robinson 

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