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Friday, 31 January 2014 23:59

Southern Discomfort: ‘The Whipping Man'

Written by Andrea Braun
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The Details

L-R: Gregg Fenner, J. Samuel Davis, Austin Pierce
L-R: Gregg Fenner, J. Samuel Davis, Austin Pierce / John Lamb

For the second time in less than a year, St. Louis audiences have the opportunity to see Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man," a fine script that has now received two excellent productions. The Black Repertory Theatre put it on in 2013 to great acclaim, making many "Best Of the Year" lists and receiving several Critics' Circle Nominations. New Jewish Theatre's version that opened last night (Jan. 30) matches that level of excellence, and due primarily to directorial choices, occasionally surpasses it.

On a dark and stormy night (and there are lots of storms over several nights that punctuate and reinforce the drama with thunder and rain, thanks to a careful reprise by Robin Weatherall of his sound design), young Confederate soldier Captain Caleb DeLeon (Austin Pierce) staggers into what remains of his ancestral mansion. He passes out and is found by old family retainer, Simon (J. Samuel Davis). Their reunion is happy, but something different charges the air when Caleb orders Simon to bring him a glass of water because the war is over and Simon is no longer a slave. He's only there to wait for his wife and daughter to return from exile and join him in the home he intends to build with the money Caleb's father has promised him if he continues to work for the family as a free man. But Caleb is badly injured and gangrene has set in, so this doesn't seem like a good time to start an argument, especially since Caleb refuses to go to the hospital where Simon has picked up some medical expertise over the months he's been back.

A mysterious figure is flitting around outside, and we soon learn it is John (Gregory Fenner), a contemporary and childhood playmate of Caleb's who was also born a slave to the house. Circumstances led him away, but he has now returned also for reasons not explained until much later in the story. John is cocky and arrogant, proud of his considerable intelligence fueled by a love for books, and he's also a dab hand at "finding" and "discovering" food, booze and household objects. He isn't willing to call what he does stealing. He and Caleb are happy to see each other also, but this love fest is cut short by the need to amputate Caleb's leg, a scene that is done believably thanks to Pierce's performance. After he rests and recovers, the three men begin the dance to realign their positions in the world and in relation to each other, and the air is pregnant with secrets and lies, which it would be wrong to spoil here.

As it happens, the story takes place during Pesach (Passover) and John notes one specific date for which Simon plans a makeshift Seder, April 14, 1865. Those acquainted with Civil War History will recognize the significance of the date and understand what's about to happen before the characters do. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln—"Father Abraham" to Simon—casts a pall over the proceedings. Simon has an eloquent speech about a recent whistle stop visit from the President and his awe at seeing the Great Man in person. Even so, the Seder goes on, with collard greens standing in for the bitter herbs and some wine "discovered" by John served at table.

The significance of the title is revealed in graphic detail, in fact, much of the play is graphic if you're squeamish, but director Doug Finlayson has created a literate, cohesive production wherein the only weakness is the danger of it slipping into melodrama. Despite some elements of the Civil War story that is told from a Southern perspective (See ‘Gone With the Wind,' for example), he never lets the play go there, despite conventions like star-crossed lovers, a dying way of life, and the depiction and destruction of a whole economy based on a system that trades in human beings. The actors are generally restrained, which makes their explosive moments more profound.

The set by John C. Stark is evocative without being elaborate at all. The place looks like a burned out house, which it is. The action all occurs in one room on the main floor, and once Caleb has had surgery, he's not really mobile except in one dream sequence at the top of Act II. Scene changes that look like they might have been a challenge are made smoothly for the most part. Michael Sullivan's lights are dim most of the time, enhanced by the illusion of oil lamps around the set and also depict lightning during the storms. Michele Friedman Siler's costumes and Lauren Probst's props add to the overall effect. The show looks as good as it sounds.

These three actors are perfectly cast. Pierce and Fenner are terrific, but Davis owns the show. Every part of his performance builds Simon into a completely human and believable character. He displays great emotional range and perfect pitch. Fenner is a more playful, less edgy John than I've seen, and I think that was a good choice because when he spills his secrets and intentions, there's a stronger impact. Pierce plays the formerly entitled but now humble and frightened young "master" as if he is living the role. We don't usually think of Confederate soldiers being Jewish, but in fact, quite a few of them were. The South was a more cordial place than the North for Jews in that era, and many thrived there until after the Civil War, even though this is a people who understood the horror of enslavement. That irony and all that is revealed on this stage will certainly intrigue you and provoke some interesting discussion.

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