Reviewed by Judy Richter
It's also worth seeing again because the Marin Theatre Company production, co-produced by Virginia Stage Company, is so gripping. in the hands of MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis and his three-man cast.
The play takes place between April 13 and 15, 1865, in a once-grand Richmond, Va., home that's now in shambles. Kate Conley's set, lit by Ben Wilhelm, reveals the devastation with its broken windows, unfurnished room and leaky roof. Sound effects by Will McCandless include gunfire and rain. Costumes are by Jacqueline Firkins.
The Civil War had ended a few days earlier, April 9, thus ending slavery. Simon (L. Peter Callender), a middle-aged house slave, has stayed behind to try to guard the house while his wife and daughter joined their master and mistress in a safer area.
The master's son, Confederate Capt. Caleb DeLeon (Nicholas Pelczar), staggers home from the war, suffering from a gangrenous bullet wound in his leg. A younger house slave, John (Tobie Windham), arrives shortly thereafter, apparently fleeing from a pursuer.
Simon tells Caleb that if his leg isn't amputated, he could die a horrible death, but Caleb refuses to go to a hospital. Therefore, Simon, reluctantly assisted by John, amputates the leg in a wrenching scene.
Because the three are Jewish, they decide to have an improvised Seder to celebrate Passover, which had begun a day or so earlier. Before they begin, though, Simon arrives with terrible news: President Lincoln has been assassinated. Calling him "Father Abraham who set us free," Simon speaks eloquently and movingly about the day he met Lincoln.
This speech is one of the highlights of the play. John has another when he talks about being savagely whipped by the whipping man, to whom masters would take misbehaving slaves for punishment. John apparently made several terrible trips to the whipping man. Caleb's most moving scene comes in a flashback to the war, when he writes a letter to his beloved after more than 200 days in a putrid trench.
Each man has dreams about what he'll do now that the war and slavery have ended. Each also has a secret that makes his future uncertain.
This gripping, provocatively human drama looks at that era in a different light and through differing viewpoints. Callender's Simon is a wise, centered presence. Pelczar's Caleb has suffered greatly and has come to doubt his faith. Windham's John is perhaps the most complex character, an intelligent, angry man with dreams, a penchant for theft and, like Simon, a deep faith.
"The Whipping Man" also draws intriguing parallels between the Jews of history, who were freed from slavery in Egypt, and Southern blacks, who were freed from slavery in this country. Thus it works on many levels, meriting more than one viewing.
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