Reflecting a deep struggle on both personal and societal levels, this powerful show opens just after the surrender of the confederate army. A confederate officer, Caleb DeLeon, has managed to make his way back to his family homestead; instead of finding his family there to greet him, he finds a battered, ransacked shell of his former home. Wounded and unable to continue further, the young man collapses on the entry floor, where he is discovered by a former family slave, Simon. The two men are soon joined by another former slave of the family, John.
Though circumstances have changed, it is obvious that the connection between the men is strong. And, while they find themselves in a familiar place, they face unfamiliar and uncertain roles, forcing them to renegotiate their relationships. This new reality effectively propels the show forward and builds tension with every subsequent revelation.
Each of the three men have different, specific reasons for being at the house, but, at the heart of the matter, they are all there because they do not know where else to go. The changed circumstance of Simon and John, once slaves and "owned" by Caleb's family, but now free men with no obligation to assist the wounded soldier, complicates the dynamic. This fact is underscored several times, most notably when Simon explains, in no uncertain terms, that Caleb may no longer order him or John around, but must now ask for their help.
The ebb and flow of relief, distrust, comfort and uncertainty further escalates the tension, as the past and present collide to reveal different truths to each man. From the opening curtain to the dramatic efforts made to save Caleb from gangrene to the final scene, author Lopez isn't afraid to examine, with gritty detail, how the changed realities of a post-war society affect these men. That final scene, when the ever-faithful Simon is confronted with the fact that he, too, has been betrayed by Caleb's father, is filled with a raw honesty that exposes each man's pain and fear.
Ron Himes, Ronald L. Conner and Justin Ivan Brown all give strong performances that touch on unexpected emotions. The script demands changes in the men, but doesn't provide easy answers or afford many moral platitudes, allowing each actor to explore the nuances of his character.
We know that Simon is devout and sure in his faith, then we see his faith crumble around him. We see that John is prone to thievery and lies, then we feel the pain and humiliation of the whip that inspired such. We are taken aback by Caleb's treatment of Simon and John, and we are touched by his love of Simon's daughter, even as Simon discounts the possibility. That we cared about each of these characters is a credit to the actors, the script and director Ed Smith.
The script by Lopez is thought provoking on many levels, and overwhelmingly effective. The one exception is a scene in which Simon relates his story of meeting Abraham Lincoln. Because the rest of the story is so present, so in-the-moment, this scene didn't work for me, even as a framework to tie Abraham Lincoln to the biblical Abraham.
Because the play is set in a Jewish household, an additional layer of complexity is added as the three men celebrate the Passover Seder together. The recited passages from the Torah dealing with redemption and emancipation took on a more profound meaning for me, lingering far past the closing curtain.
The Black Rep's production of "The Whipping Man" is a compelling, engrossing drama that examines a little considered, but incredibly important, period in U.S. history. The show runs through April 13th at the Grandel Theater. For additional information, or to make your reservation, please call the box office at 314-534-3810 or MetroTix at 314-534-1111.