Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

The Whipping Man
Raleigh Little Theatre
Review by Garrett Southerland


Phillip Bernard Smith
Photo by Curtis Brown Photography
No matter how much one delves into the American Civil War, there are always more layers to uncover. Such is the case with Matthew Lopez's play, The Whipping Man, running now at the Raleigh Little Theatre. Taking on difficult questions such as, "How could Christians justify slavery with the Bible?" and, "How could Jews, who came to America to escape persecution and who, themselves, were subjected to slavery, also justify the barbaric practice?" Lopez does not attempt to provide answers but gives us plenty to ponder.

The Whipping Man takes place in the dilapidated house of Confederate soldier Caleb, performed by a realistically ruined Ryan Ladue, who has come home soon after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. The only person there to greet him is his former slave, Simon, portrayed heartbreakingly by Phillip Bernard Smith. Caleb is dirty, starving, and wounded, but there is not much Simon has to offer in terms of nourishment, other than some hidden whiskey. Simon discovers that Caleb has been shot in the leg; gangrene has begun to set in, and his leg must be removed below the knee as soon as possible. Though Simon insists Caleb be taken to the nearest confederate hospital, Caleb refuses to go and asks Simon to perform the surgery there. Simon is reluctant to attempt the procedure, especially without anesthetic, but it seems Caleb's request will be carried out, as another former slave, John, performed with comedic effect by Chris Helton, shows up with a fresh sack of "discovered" goods from nearby homes. What happens next is an excruciating bit of theatre, as we watch the early stages of an amputation on the dirt floor of this antebellum house, all made more intimate by the fact that the scenic design surrounds the audience, bringing us into the room with the characters.

As Caleb recovers, we find out that his family is Jewish, and their slaves have been taught Judaism. Though Simon and John have embraced the faith, Caleb's experiences in the war have given him doubts. Simon reminds Caleb that questioning is not wrong, and that it is through questioning that we come closer to the truth and to God. Lee's surrender has coincided with Passover, a time of reflection for Jews. The Seder, a holy ritual of stories, songs, and food, designed to remind Jews of their slavery and freedom, also becomes a reminder of the new freedom given to Simon and John. As stories are shared and memories unearthed, the harsh truths in these three men's pasts, and hints of what will become of them in the new world after the war, leads the audience to an uncertain but thrilling conclusion.

Director Patrick Torres has done a superb job in presenting a story that is engaging, emotional, and even harrowing. Though the play is shared evenly by its three actors, Mr. Smith as Simon stands out, not only in his dominant physical presence but also in his subtle and not-so-subtle portrayal of a character who has stoically endured what life has given him. The immersive scenic design by Miyuki Su puts the audience in the foyer of this old antebellum house, surrounded by destruction and decay. Every detail—ornate wallpaper, charred and exposed walls, broken windows, hanging fragments of splintered wood from the demolished ceiling—is beautifully executed. Kaitlin Gill's lighting design enhances the mood and story, from lightning strikes outside the broken home to the soft glow from candles sconces. A particularly effective use of light is the brightening of the room when prayers are spoken or religious acts performed, providing fleeting hope in a dark moment. Sound design by John Maruca includes period music played on a violin, reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary, as well as very realistic sounds of thunder and rain throughout.

As the food at Seder serves as a bitter reminder of the Jews' history, so does Mr. Lopez's play serve as a reminder of our recent history of slavery. And just as the wounds of the Whipping Man endure on the bodies of slaves, so do the psychic and cultural wounds of this "peculiar institution" on our society.

The Whipping Man is presented by the Raleigh Little Theatre in the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, NC through January 29th, 2017. Tickets are $24 for adults, $20 for seniors (62 and up) and students, $15 for all on the first Sunday. Tickets can be purchased online at www.raleighlittletheatre.org or by phone at 919-821-3111.

Playwright: Matthew Lopez
Director: Patrick Torres
Costume Design: Vicki Olson
Scenic Design: Miyuki Su
Lighting Design: Kaitlyn Gill
Sound Design: John Maruca

Cast, in order of appearance:
Caleb: Ryan Ladue
Simon: Phillip Bernard Smith
John: Chris Helton


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