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The Whipping Man

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Whipping Man
Jay Wilkison and André Bruagher.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

When big history collides with little people’s big feelings, the results tend to be explosive reminders that little separates ordinary men and titans except point of view. There's no shortage of human greatness to be found in Matthew Lopez’s play The Whipping Man, which Manhattan Theatre Club has just premiered at its Stage I space. Whether onstage, where André Braugher is delivering a commanding turn as a former slave discovering the limits of freedom, or offstage, where through life and death President Abraham Lincoln is redefining what Americanism means, minor sparks ignite major conflagrations throughout Lopez’s look at the waning days of the Civil War. If only those flames generated more real heat.

For their part, Lopez, director Doug Hughes, and designers John Lee Beatty (set), Catherine Zuber (costumes), and Ben Stanton (lighting) have adeptly steeped the action in the murky uncertainty of Virginia in April, 1865. The crumbling manor house we see, complete with a hole or two in the roof, is the emblem of wasted-away elegance that could serve as a metaphor for a South about to change forever. But such change does happen instantly. Robert E. Lee may have just surrendered at Appomattox a few days ago and slavery may be officially off the books, but there's still reason to believe some people will do anything to scribble it back in.

That's why Simon (Braugher) and John (André Holland), who are the only two left in the house, live in constant fear of every creak of the floorboards or breeze at the door. Their angst is only exacerbated by the sudden reappearance of Caleb (Jay Wilkison), the son of their white owner and a Confederate soldier who’s suffered a severe injury to his leg. That bullet wound, now a week old, is festering something fierce, and Simon insists the leg must be removed below the knee — thus rendering Caleb into the power of the two black men he owned for his entire 20-plus-year life.

Simon trusts him, believing him to be more or less as good a man as his father (who’s known for his relatively fair treatment of slaves), but John does not. He's always been unpredictable and unsatisfied with servitude — even now, he devises slick justifications for all the glorious possessions he "discovers" in neighboring abandoned houses — and that attitude was met by both Caleb and his father with fierce punishment the other slaves in the house did not receive. His wounds, inflicted by a too-accurate whipping man, are still tender, and only gradually do we learn that Caleb and John share a number of other sores that have not yet healed.

The Whipping Man
Jay Wilkison, André Bruagher, and André Holland.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

What unites all three, and what gives Lopez's play its distinctive flavor, is Judaism. (Whatever else they may have acquired from Caleb's family, their faith is one they take seriously.) The fact that so many America-changing events are happening at the same time as Passover, the Jewish people's own celebration of their freedom from slavery, is lost on none of the three men. They even hold an improvised Seder in an attempt to find peace and a way forward that's so far eluded them. That their fellowship lasts scarcely longer than the ceremony itself, burst apart by secrets Caleb and John are keeping about the whereabouts of Simon's wife and daughter, is more proof of how much further they, and their country, still have to go.

That Seder scene, which consumes a large portion of the second act, is exemplary writing that unifies the three characters within their shared religion but without preaching or creakiness. The rest of the play does not make its points as succinctly or powerfully. Lopez has cannily positioned Caleb, Simon, and John at three different corners of the Southern slave triangle (owner, property, and rebel), but doesn't explore much of what their complex relationship entails. We learn a lot about the role Caleb's father played in all their lives, and Simon's daughter eventually becomes a major plot point. But when it's time for any of them to reveal their inner selves, beyond a generalized frustration or the real impetus behind a love letter, for example, the story moves on. (I really wanted to learn Caleb's personal justification for his role in the whipping incident that soured John on him forever; but John cuts him off just as his explanation begins.)

If not for the fact that how these three co-exist is crucial to the drama, this might be overlookable. But Lopez places greater weight on the concept than the follow-through, leaving many vital questions unanswered. (The final curtain comes down on a scene that cries out for a third act that is destined never to arrive.) As a result, we get a robust and colorful tract on the indignities of slavery, but no substantial new information to justify this well-trod message for 2011 audiences. There's also something of a gap emotionally, with Wilkison and Holland trapped in characters that are allowed to be little more than archetypes. Both performers do what they can to wrest uniqueness from them, but find no compelling success — Caleb and John are forces that oppose each other for reasons historical, not because they believe in two competing visions of the same dream.

Simon, however, is a stabilizing force for both, and thus something more than a run-of-the-mill character sketch. A bridge between the white and black (and old and new) worlds, he's witnessed greatness firsthand and determined not just that he will be a part of it — but that he deserves to be. Braugher is outstanding, summoning unquestionable authority to set the wayward John on the right path while also making the hard choices that Caleb is afraid to make himself. When Simon must disfigure Caleb in order to save his life, Braugher's voice and movements are flooded with a combination of affection, vengeance, glee, and even the suggestion that his independence is not yet a fact he knows in his bones.

The play's later sections concern themselves with showing how Simon's personal war is not over — and may in fact never end — and Braugher approaches each new success and setback with the determination that all battles, great and small, are worth the cost. At his last appearance, proudly striding through a door to a future neither he nor anyone else can predict, his Simon has earned the freedom he never thought he'd see. Braugher makes Simon into every tragic hero who's sacrificed what mattered most to him for an ideal that would benefit the world at large, and his transformation is an intoxicating one the likes of which we've never quite seen before. In the otherwise unambitious The Whipping Man, that's an accomplishment especially worthy of celebration.


The Whipping Man
Through March 27
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I at City Center, 131 West 55th Street at NY City Center between 6th and 7th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours including a 15 min intermission
Tickets online and current performance schedule: www.nycitycenter.org