Some first class acting in the service of an intriguing if not fully mature script makes THE WHIPPING MAN (now through April 8 at KC Rep on the UMKC campus) a thought-provoking two hours of theater.
Though by no means fearless or adventurous (when is the Rep gonna give up on those superlatives?), Matthew Lopez‘s new play– competently staged by Rep Artistic Director Eric Rosen— takes us back in time to what must have been one of the strangest moments in our country’s history.
It’s April, 1865. One day, you’re a slave; the next, you’re free. One day, you’re a master– the next, just a guy with control issues.
The War Between the States (as WHIPPING MAN suggests, not that Civil an undertaking) has come to its bloody end, Lee surrendering to Grant at Appomatox. Coincidentally, it’s the first night of Passover (who knew?). Rebel soldier Caleb stumbles into his bombed out RIchmond home, a bullet in his leg. Only Simon, the family’s retainer, has remained behind, defending the homestead against the looting rabble. Caleb’s father and mother have fled, taking their slaves– Simon’s wife and daughter– with them.
Did I mention Caleb’s family was Jewish? Every Passover, for all those years, they recited the story of the exodus from Egypt– from slavery to freedom and the Promised Land. They ate a sumptuous Passover meal prepared by their—slaves. Wasn’t that just a tad hypocritical, y’all?
WHIPPING MAN probes the shifting ground between Simon and Caleb. Add to that treacherous terrain charming con man John, a slave who grew up with Caleb in the Richmond house. Simon and John may have had it better with Caleb’s family than the African-Americans who toiled in the cotton fields; but there was plenty of Tom Jefferson-style shenanigans going on under that roof. Worse, John faced the eponymous Whipping Man whenever the master felt the time had come.
Not a guy you want to turn your back on, if you know what I mean.
In this three-hander, the secrets and lies flow fast and loose– they have to, or the whole enterprise would bog down in the unrelenting rain that threatens to wash away this part of Richmond (nice job by lighting designer VIctor Tan and sound designer Andre Pluess on the thunder and lightning). Lopez veers into melodrama land with a series of startling revelations— a sophomore slip-up that I expect the playwright will grow out of with future iterations of his opus. Still, when there’s an audible "ooooh" from the audience every time Lopez turns that plot screw, you have to appreciate the craftsmanship.
In the role of Caleb, Kyle Hatley reminds us he’s one of our town’s most exciting young actors– and a good looking lad to boot (why he hasn’t tried his luck in New York or Hollywood is hard to figure out). Josh Breckenridge— fresh from a stint in Kander and Ebb’s much-admired Broadway effort THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS– makes John a likable scam-artist, smooth as silk gliding from one petty theft to another. He’s a survivor– Breckenridge makes John the one character you’d bet on to get out of this hell hole and wind up selling moccasins to the Injuns.
But the scenery chewing prize– and I mean that in a complimentary way– goes to Michael Genet‘s Simon. Stooped-over servant one moment, outta-my-way giant another, he personifies the strange change of circumstances and expectations we call Emancipation. Reading high school history books, you probably never stopped to think about what it must have been like to be a slave one day and free the next. Genet and THE WHIPPING MAN provide some compelling insights into what must have been on the minds of those African-Americans, whose world turned upside down on Passover, back in 1865.