Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Whipping Man
Also see Richard's review of Forget Me Not
Looking back now, I realize this was during the "irrational exuberance" of the housing bubble, when our darker sensibilities were pushed out to the fringesa time when giant, touring "jukebox" musicals went stomping across the land like giant killer robots, forcing a kind of mindless glee upon the theater-going public.
But that housing bubble has popped, and only a relative handful of jukebox robots still roam the countryside. And, meanwhile, drama is finally staging a comeback.
Matthew Lopez' The Whipping Man ran in New York in 2011 and, in this latest local staging, actor J. Samuel Davis has never been more commanding (or weary, or wise) as a struggling ex-slave. The whole story becomes a gripping contest between the steadfast endurance of an older man (Mr. Davis) and the fear and impulsiveness of two younger men. And, thanks to director Doug Finlayson, every word and every glance becomes a moment of sharply focused characterization.
The story begins when Caleb, played by Austin Pierce, staggers into what's left of his family's home, shortly after the Civil War. (It's 1865, and Union General Ulysses S. Grant has just gone through nearby Richmond, Virginia.) Caleb, a returning Confederate officer, hobbles in to find two of his family's former slaves holed-up in the wreckage. Not long after, a powerful scene involving primitive surgery will leave the audience squirming in their seats, thanks to Mr. Pierce's immaculate performance.
Gregory Fenner is excellent as John, the younger ex-slave: full of sly delight that turns to anguish, and horror later. And as the story hits its climax, he gracefully falls and jumps back up to his feet during a struggle with Simon (Mr. Davis), in a sequence that ought to count as a perfect moment of stunt ballet.
A delightful weirdness develops long before that, however, with the revelation that the DeLeon family (the departed slave-owners) had indoctrinated Simon and John (Mr. Fenner) into Judaism. In one of the play's cornerstone events, it's deeply compelling to watch Mr. Davis conduct a Passover seder: where history calls out of the Egypt, and even out beyond our own Antebellum era. For that matter, though, you could say it's deeply compelling to watch J. Samuel Davis do just about anything in this first-class drama.
Through February 16, 2014, at the New Jewish Theatre, at the Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Campus Drive, just west of Lindbergh on Scheutz Rd. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org. No shows on Fridays.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the US.
** Denotes special costumes by Lou Bird