The Whipping Man
by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Hana Sharif
at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street in Hartford through March 18
Entering Hartford Stage and taking in the stunning set for The Whipping Man, you instantly notice a transformation of the Tony Award-winning theatre’s space. A mansion in Richmond, Virginia has been shattered and ravaged by the Civil War. The destruction makes Gone With the Wind’s postbellum Tara look like a fixer-upper. Floorboards are splintered, walls are pock-marked with holes, and tattered furniture is strewn about what was once a grand hall. Moodily backlit, a Confederate soldier hobbles through the front doors and collapses on the floor.
Timed well with the country’s observance of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, The Whipping Man begins with dark intrigue and maintains its tension and mystery through its final haunting moments. Hartford Stage Associate Artistic Director Hana Sharif fulfills her directorial potential with this assured, masterful production of Matthew Lopez’s taut drama.
When one hears of the initial concept for the play, it seems a bit of a stretch. Caleb, a Jewish soldier from the South, returns from the war to find his ravaged home abandoned by his family and only populated by two of the family’s former slaves. The two African American men were raised reading the Torah and participating in traditional Jewish observances: a kosher home, Sabbath dinner, and Hebrew prayer. Instead of jettisoning the faith after their emancipation, John and Simon still cling to their religious beliefs and are determined to celebrate Passover with the family’s prodigal son.
It is to playwright Lopez’s credit that the situation and characters are totally plausible (and the playbill dramaturgy backs up the historical veracity of black Jews in the South). With well-delineated and superbly acted characters, we are swept into the scarred heart of this fascinating tale.
As Caleb , Josh Landay telegraphs that the physical wounds of a war-weary soldier, while slowly revealing the painful secrets that he hides in his heart. Caleb’s anguish is palpable and his inability to leave his now-decrepit home shows that, in a certain sense, he has swapped places with his slaves. Che Ayende portrays John, the young emancipated slave who is a simmering powder keg. In Ayende’s hands, John’s compromised morality and righteous anger lead to a crackerjack performance.
The standout of the cast is Leon Addison Brown as Simon. Despite being indoctrinated into his adopted faith by his masters, Simon adheres to Judaism with a purity missing from Caleb who was born into the faith. Brown’s masterful performance charts Simon’s growth from a still doting man-servant to a free man confronted with a shattering new reality.
Sharif manages the chilling and emotional tone of the piece beautifully. The graphic scene where Simon must amputate Caleb’s gangrenous leg is one of the most graphic, disturbing moments I have witnessed onstage. Her decision to focus most of the action on a narrow piece of decking creates a sense of intimacy amidst Andromache Chalfant’s sprawling set. Marcus Doshi’s spare, spectral lighting and Broken Chord’s atmospheric sound design all contribute to the foreboding inherent in the piece.
Not everything works 100% in the play and production. John is being hunted by a white man who never manages to figure out that the slave might still be hanging out at his former home. Caleb’s flashback to a letter written to his love directly addressed to the audience seems like a dramaturgical easy-out. Moments where John dumps purloined treasures through holes in the house reveal that it is a white female stagehand instead of a black slave. Piles of detritus in the house occasionally shift and buckle indicating the ongoing collapse of the old world order, but it never seems quite as threatening as is probably intended.
These, however, are minor grumbling. Ultimately, Lopez’s yoking of Hebrew slaves in Egypt emancipated by Moses with African slaves in the United States freed by Abraham provides an astute comparison. The painful whiplashes that bind these three men together strike in a gripping, exciting manner. Run to see this urgent, exciting play.