This new production at The Warehouse Theatre offers way more to chew on than the sad little Seder meal that the play’s three characters share – a sorry supper of hard tack (matzo); bitter herbs (raw collards); and some shank bone from the horse that one of them rode in on.
Matthew Lopez’s script tells the story of Caleb DeLeon, a severely wounded captain in the just-surrendered Confederate Army, who returns to his family’s war-ravaged home in Richmond, where two now-former slaves, Simon and John, remain holed up.
Daniel Parvis plays Caleb, who portrays pervasive agony pretty well. Sean Michael plays John, the rascally young rounder who, now free, is free to “find,” “discover” and loot stuff from abandoned homes and read his commandeered books with even more abandon. Masud Olufani plays Simon, the pivotal character here who’s illiterate, yet wiser and older than the other two.
Caleb arrives on a dark and stormy night, his ride dead outside, a potential buffet. The soldier’s gangrenous right leg looks ripe for amputation, which Simon and John handle soon enough. That leaves the ex-slaves the only “whole” men around – though Simon ultimately does show off some scars from “the whipping man.”
The script has a few scars, too.
The problems begin with the harrowing gun-wielding reunion at the very beginning. From the start, a lot of testosterone blasts from the small, claustrophobic set; three men cramp the front foyer of the shattered DeLeon mansion, with its windows blown out, walls of busted plaster and just a few candles. The initial action is fast and furious and as staccato and irregular as battlefield rifle fire, and it’s hard to follow Masud, who’s speaking in Southern-Negro dialect.
Fortunately, though, things settle down fairly quickly, and director Brian Clowdus and his fellows find some rhythm – only to run into the problems of Lopez’s often-rhythm-lacking script.
The play lurches like a tattered regiment. One minute, things are flowing along with lovely passages about slavery and freedom and spirituality, the next an unnecessary expository or declamatory detour. For instance, Act II starts with Caleb mysteriously transported back to the Petersburg battlefield. He’s wearing a rain-drenched uniform, he has both legs, and he’s reading a letter to us that he’s writing to his “girlfriend”; her identity is crucial, but it’s also a spoiler. In my own play-writing process, I’ve been told that watching a character read is about as dramatic as … watching someone read. The mini-scene could be cut with far more ease than Simon and John saw off Caleb’s leg.
Another show-slower comes during the oddball Seder, when we’re treated to a plodding explanation about Passover and tradition designed to also remind us – again – about how Jews were slaves once, too.
Historians say that only about 30,000 Jews settled in the South in 1860, and only 1 percent of them owned slaves. So we’re somehow supposed to share an up-close-and-personal experience with an impossibly small population. Of course, that’s what drama is for – most of us don’t have a working relationship with an R2D2 or a family tie with an American sniper. But we don’t have to have visited galaxies far, far away or have been dropped into war zones to be pulled into life’s tragedies. Here, though, Lopez feels compelled to educate us sufficiently about a religious tradition in order for him to get his message-message-message across-across-across about slavery/freedom.
Lopez also pulls off a nifty calendar trick: the show’s set during Passover in 1865. That weekend, April 14-15 exactly 150 years ago, not only celebrated the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, but it also happened over those same two days that Lee surrendered at Appomattox and Lincoln was assassinated – “Father Abraham – your Moses, John” says Simon, who’d actually happened to have the good fortune of meeting The Man.
The whole thing feels a little contrived – and that’s before Lopez begins to layer on even more story lines. The various arcs grow increasingly complex and even more tightly interwoven: slaves are freed but have been sold; miscegenation; various lies and vastly differing perceptions, opinions and perspectives among the three.
Fortunately, except for the adrenaline-juiced opening, the actors ensure that the stories are easy to follow. And the directing helps us overcome the script’s problems. Masud makes us believe that he can be the trio’s rabbi, and he makes us yearn for him to find his family. Michael’s John is endearing and often funny. And Parvis’s Caleb is in such unknowable agony that we understand how he can seem to go blank every now and then. Clowdus takes all three and makes the sum far smoother than the raggedy parts.
And finally … we applaud the Warehouse’s decision to mount the play. The production is gutsy, reminding us that WHT insists on being intimate and edgy. And despite its shortcomings, but because of its beautifully written flourishes and fine message, the play makes us Passover-thankful that we live here. In this time in history. In the South. In Greenville.
Bottom line: Go see THE WHIPPING MAN. Go, not because you’re a critic or a history buff, but because you want to think and feel – It’s good for you. Trust me. As I drove away from the West End, I thought about how so many Fete readers wouldn’t support a show like this one because of its tough content or because it’s in, like, a theater. And yet, experiencing this play was one of the most cathartic experiences of the year so far.
Be different. Do different. Enjoy the show.
THE WHIPPING MAN runs Feb. 20-22; Feb. 26-28; March 1; March 5-7, 2015