The Whipping Man
September 16, 2011
The Rogue in Jewish Ensemble Theatre, Plowshares Theatre, Reviews

At the close of the Civil War, citizens of the ravaged South were in upheaval: depending on their skin color, either their former wealth and lifestyle was toppled, or they faced an exciting but daunting new world of rights and responsibilities. Playwright Matthew Lopez imagines a singular fallout in The Whipping Man, a co-production of Jewish Ensemble Theatre and Plowshares Theatre. Directed by Gary Anderson, artistic director of the latter company, this production plunges into the social issues surrounding it, but hits home with the palpable anguish of its magnificently portrayed personal stakes.

On the heels of the Confederate surrender in April 1965, rebel officer Caleb (Rusty Mewha) returns wounded to his home, where newly emancipated slave Simon (Council Cargle) recognizes the severity of his former master’s gangrene and rightly insists on amputation. The elephant in the room — this white-hot power shift among privileged Caleb, nurturing Simon, and the wild-card return of former slave John (Scott Norman) — is magnified in the face of a medical emergency (and subsequent convalescence) that leaves Caleb in no position to protest. After the events of the first turbulent night, the physical squeamishness lets up, allowing an unrelenting but handily earned emotional discomfort to take its place. No ramification is left unexamined, from the freed men’s motives for staying in the house of their oppression, to the hypocrisy of their shared Jewish faith being passed down by mandate from owner to slave, to the fallacy of Caleb’s hollow justification that — compared with the horrors of plantation work — his family treated their slaves with fondness and fairness. Much is made of John’s opportunistic looting of the abandoned homes surrounding them, an exorbitant expression of his freedom that previously would have gotten him sent to the titular whipping man; at another extreme, Simon’s caretaking of Caleb is at once a triumph of human compassion and an open question without an easy answer.

Pain and devastation reach well beyond the characters to the ruined setting. Relentless rain and thunder outside are repeatedly alluded to by lighting and sound designer Jon Weaver, and ingeniously brought indoors by set designer Melinda Pacha’s steady water drips caught by pinging metal containers. The home’s burned-out and looted disrepair is contrasted by Diane Ulseth’s properties, representing John’s growing hoard of both useful and bitterly opulent finds; costume designer Mary Copenhagen also finds a wellspring in John’s transformation from rags to increasingly rich, gaudy fabrics and trimmings. That many Southern white men left home to fight for their way of life and, upon losing, came home to a reality almost as bad as the battlefield is apparent here; just how much destitution is owed the upholder of an abhorrent social order is left to the keen viewer’s inference.

Much of the second act finds Simon leading the other characters in a Passover Seder with unique significance, as two among their number relate with particular closeness to the ancient Jews’ freedom from bondage in Egypt. Here, Cargle’s paternal leadership tops off an already dominant performance with fervent ownership of the ritual and unwavering celebration. The main conflict boils up between the younger characters and the secrets they’re keeping, and John and Caleb face their circumstances with alternating resignation and contempt. Norman’s John tinges his irresponsible thief with dangerously playful animosity that makes the character’s moral slippery slope all the more intriguing; Mewha’s downtrodden, cowed invalid is just as capable of malice, but his greatest accomplishment is betraying how much he knows he must answer for, even as Caleb is at a loss to actually do so. Throughout, these three performers trod through conflicts both ingrained and introduced with careful attention to motive and relationship, keeping the characters realistically sympathetic and flawed against the vexing subject matter of the text.

Even viewers prepared for a complex ethical exploration may be surprised by the depths plumbed by The Whipping Man. However, Anderson and company deserve credit for paying equal attention to the emotional toll of these captivating performances, both a contributor to the production’s abounding thematic success and a wonderful, terrible achievement in its own right.

The Whipping Man is no longer playing.
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