Review: New Jewish Theatre's 'The Whipping Man' Cracks and Sizzles

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

In Matthew Lopez’ “The Whipping Man,” three men return to a former grand estate of Richmond, Va. the day after the end of the Civil War. Two of them—Simon and John—are former slaves of the household, just freed. The third is Caleb DeLeon, the son of the master of the estate and a Confederate soldier, also just freed as a prisoner of war, or so we believe. It’s also the first day of Passover Seder, which historically, was celebrated on this day by Jews from both sides of the war, commemorating the release of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.

In New Jewish Theatre’s effective production, this much is just the framework on which hangs a much more complicated story that deals with slavery, freedom, betrayal, cruelty, religion and the horrors of war. They are all released from one kind of bondage only to find themselves in another.

The Whipping Man Photo by John Lamb

“The Whipping Man”
Photo by John Lamb

J. Samuel Davis gives a confident performance as Simon, the older slave who serves as the wise and moral guide of the ragtag group. We imagine he functioned in the same way before the war, his homespun simplicity a cover for a much more complicated man underneath.

Austin Pierce’s Caleb returns home grievously wounded, the gangrene already making its destructive way up his leg. The limb will have to come off, of course, and as Simon furtively prepares for the amputation, he describes to John step-by-step what the surgery will consist of. It’s one of the most seat-squirming scenes you’re likely to encounter. Pierce’s performance brings home the abject terror wounded soldiers must have felt when they underwent the same meatball surgery, usually performed with dull knives with no more than a few gulps of whiskey for anesthesia and a bullet to bite on.

The Whipping Man Photo by John Lamb

“The Whipping Man”
Photo by John Lamb

Gregory Fenner as John is loose in the comedy relief role (he keeps removing pilfered items from his bag as they’re needed) that also gives him the opportunity to tell the harrowing tale of the whipping man, to whom slaves were taken to be punished. The telling is as brutal and heartbreaking as the whipping itself. Simon has his dramatic moments as well, especially when he returns to the estate after he’s learned Lincoln has been assassinated. Simon is devastated, and we are as well. It is against this backdrop the Seder occurs.

John C. Stark’s set is wonderful, evocative of the estate’s previous grandness, but now a hulking, wounded wreck. The lighting designed by Michael Sullivan is dramatic and moody perfection, and Michele Friedman Siler’s costuming captures the period with complete believability. Director Doug Finlayson has orchestrated a show with pacing as rhythmic as a symphony and at times, as pounding as a drum corps. All together—the performers, director and technical staff—have created a show that works on all levels.

The Whipping Man Photo by John Lamb

“The Whipping Man”
Photo by John Lamb

“The Whipping Man,” continues at New Jewish through Feb. 16. For tickets or more information, visit the New Jewish Theatre website.

Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly

HEC TV will televise the second annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards ceremony ‘live’ from COCA on Monday, March 17

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