The Whipping Man
Also see Fred's Interview with Jessica Stone
Caleb (Nick Westrate), a Confederate officer who is Jewish, staggers home, with a badly wounded lower leg, just after the conclusion of the Civil War surrender at Appomattox in April, 1865. He finds his home in Richmond, Virginia, in near ruins. Simon (Clarke Peters), a former slave who is now a free man, has been "guarding" the homestead. Simon examines Caleb's gangrenous injury and informs the younger man, "that leg gonna have ta come off." John (LeRoy McClain), a younger black man who was also a slave in the DeLeon household, returns. It later becomes evident that, at one point, John and Caleb were friendly: "two peas in a pod."
It is Passover and we discover that Simon, when he was a child, became Jewish as the DeLeon family elders brought him into that faith. As the layers of the drama are peeled away, the production grows complex and maintains its emotional pitch. Each of the three characters has experienced significant pain and/or will suffer great sorrow. The script is taut and the accompanying level of performance award worthy.
Clarke Peters, as Simon, moves from one mood to another as the storyline evolves. His character is wise, giving and fatherly; and then Simon is betrayed. Peters might be facially recognizable to many since he has starred in television series such as "The Wire," the current "Treme," and, before both of these, "The Corner." Peters is also a musical talent who wrote Five Guys Named Moe. Further, he has starred in shows such as Porgy and Bess and Guys and Dolls. His current performance is deep rooted, strong, and enduring.
Both Westrate and McClain, younger actors, are also affecting and deeply convincing. Christopher Innvar, who has performed and directed at Barrington Stage for many years, does a fine job here as he directs and coaxes with specificity.
Barrington Stage is wise to present the show at its smaller venue which allows patrons proximity and does not really afford the opportunity to escape the impact and implications of the play. While theme, content, plot, setting and time period are not in common, Master Harold ... and the boys, Athol Fugard's classic three-person work did come to my mind as I pondered, just one day after attending, The Whipping Man. Each of these plays blazes, so to speak, about one wise, loyal, clear-thinking individual. That character was Sam (as personified originally by Zakes Mokae) in the Fugard; and now Simon through Peters' deft and telling performance in Barrington Stage's rendering of Lopez's piercing The Whipping Man. The plays and the two roles transport profound resonance and wisdom.
The Whipping Man is surely about slavery and Judaism. Delving more deeply, one perceives men searching for individual spiritual worth, physical salvation and family survival. Historically, this was a moment when The President of the United States set slaves free. To understate, that did not actualize quickly.
The Whipping Man is tragic but challenging rather than depressing. Lopez taps into many facets of humanitycollective and individual. Innvar and the purposefully agitated actors fill the confining performance space with tension. The production continues at Barrington Stage Company's Stage 2 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through June 13th. For ticket information, visit barringtonstageco.org or call the box office at (413) 236-8888.
- Fred Sokol