Monday, August 17, 2009

Theater review: 'Whipping Man' provides searing parallel tales of emancipation

Nick Duckart, John Archie and Brandon Morris
in Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man.

By Hap Erstein

The surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The beginning of Passover, 1865.

The intersection of these three events are the crux of a compelling, if improbable tale by Matthew Lopez, The Whipping Man, the second straight theatrical coup for new Caldwell Theatre artistic director Clive Cholerton.

Set in Richmond, Va., in a once-grand plantation home, now as shattered and splintered as the nation trying to heal the wounds of war, Lopez’s play has only three characters. But among those three -- Caleb, the son of the owner, and two of his former slaves, Simon and John -- is a microcosm of a country adjusting to the changes the divisive conflict has brought.

Hobbled soldier Caleb arrives home in agony, dragging a leg infected with gangrene from an untreated bullet wound. He finds himself at the mercy of the newly emancipated slaves, who cannot quickly forget the violent ways of their former master, of his title whip-wielding discipline enforcer -- and of Caleb as well. As the older, seemingly benevolent Simon sizes up Caleb’s condition, he insists on amputating the limb, perhaps with a sadistic satisfaction.

Over the course of the 90-minute, intermissionless evening, playwright Lopez has several secrets to reveal about the characters, and some of them are a bit contrived. It begins slowly, but gradually gathers momentum as national scars merge with personal histories, not unlike the apartheid saga of Athol Fugard’s Master Harold . . . and the Boys.

What gives The Whipping Man its novel slant is that Simon and John have adopted their owner’s Jewish faith, while the horrors of war have caused Caleb to stray from religious belief. The arrival of Passover, the celebration of the Jews’ exodus from Egyptian slavery, presents an apt parallel with the release from bondage of the Southern slaves. The play climaxes with an irony-laden Passover seder service conducted by Simon with a distinctly holy-roller fervor.

Carbonell Award winner John Archie heads the cast as amateur surgeon Simon, who towers over the production with a moving monologue in reaction to the news of Lincoln’s death and, soon afterwards, a rousing rendition of the Passover saga. Brandon Morris, recently relocated to New York, returns to South Florida to play John, a seething, bitter former slave whose own liberation is underscored by his preoccupation with liberating property from nearby homes. He, too, is harboring secrets and they surface with visceral impact.

Rounding out the dramatic triangle is New World School of the Arts graduate Nick Duckart as Caleb, able to hold his own against his two veteran cast members, even though the character’s infirmities keep him supine and stationary for most of the play.

Cholerton stages The Whipping Man with a tight rein, building theatrical impact with melodramatic assurance. Tim Bennett’s anteroom unit set is simple and effective, complemented well by Chris Hill’s lighting.

While other area troupes devote the summer months to lightweight fare, the Caldwell has counter-programmed with a dramatic script that would be welcome in any season.

THE WHIPPING MAN, Caldwell Theatre Company, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Continuing through Aug. 30. Tickets: $38 - $47.50. Call: (561) 241-7432 or (877) 245-7432.

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