Regional Reviews: San Diego
The Whipping Man
Also see Bill's review of Footloose
To tell much of the story would provide too many opportunities to spoil it, but some context (not provided by Mr. Lopez, which is a problem) helps to understand the plot's twists and turns. At the end of the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant laid siege to General Robert E. Lee's army in Petersburg, a city strategically located south and east of Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy. The siege lasted nine and a half months and created horrific living conditions for the Confederate troops. Lee finally abandoned Petersburg on April 2, 1865, and one week later, he surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, a small town west of Richmond. Five days after that, on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.
The Whipping Man takes place in the few days between the surrender and the aftermath of the assassination. Caleb (Mark J. Sullivan) has served as a captain in the Confederate Army for the duration of the war, and he was at Petersburg during the siege. He arrives at the family home in Richmond wounded and on a horse that is nearly dead. He finds the home to be in tatters, made so by Southerners who wanted to pre-empt looting by Grant's forces. Caleb finds Simon (Charlie Robinson) still living at the house. While Simon was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Lincoln in 1863, he and other slaves had remained on the property with the promise that he would eventually be compensated for his continuing services. One of those other slaves is John (Avery Glymph), a young man who has been living by his wits and who also makes his way back to the family's estate following the surrender.
Caleb's father had taught his slaves to practice Judaism, and Simon in particular has become quite devout. He stages a Passover Seder for the three that becomes revelatory, both in terms of the parallels between the emancipation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt with the current situation, and in terms of the emancipation of these particular former household slaves.
Mr. Lopez has produced an intimate spectacle where the action is mostly described rather than shown. There are a number of characters who are named and discussed but who never appear (including the title character), and keeping the relationships straight can lead to confusion. And, Mr. Lopez's surprises (of which there are many) make sense in the end but can be jarring as they are introduced. The writing is gritty, and the squeamish may find some of the language and the action to be hard to take.
The Old Globe has given its new playwright-in-residence a top-notch production of his work. There is fine work all around by the designers, and director Giovanna Sardelli uses the White Theatre's arena configuration to fine advantage. The performers, each of whom gets to shine as the story progresses, are uniformly excellent.
While Mr. Lopez still has some developing to do as a playwright, audiences for The Whipping Man should be glad to have experienced the early work of someone so promising.
The Old Globe presents The Whipping Man through June 13 at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. Tickets ($29 - $62) may be purchased at the box office, by phoning (619) 23-GLOBE, or online at The Old Globe's website.
The Whipping Man, by Matthew Lopez. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli, with scenic design by Robert Mark Morgan, costume design by Denitsa D. Bliznakova, lighting design by Lap Chi Chu, and sound design by Jill BC Du Boff. Diana Moser was the stage manager, Claudia Hill-Sparks was the voice and dialect coach, Samantha Barrie, CSA, did the casting, and George Yé was the fight choreographer.
Cast: Mark J. Sullivan, Charlie Robinson, and Avery Glymph.
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