The Whipping Man
Also see John's review of No, No, Nanette
The Whipping Man is set in April of 1865, against the backdrop of the last days of the Civil War. A badly wounded, Jewish, confederate soldier named Caleb DeLeon returns to the estate of his family in Richmond, Virginia. Caleb's family has left, and there in the ruins of a once grand estate, he begs his two now freed slaves, Simon and John, to nurse him back to health. In keeping with the traditions of the time, slaves were required to practice the same religion as their owners. Simon and John, like their former master, are also Jewish. Though separated by color and station, they are united in their faith as Passover begins. This religious celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt when Moses led them out of slavery into the promised land, could not be more poignantly placed than at the end of the war between the states over the question of slavery.
The three men must each weigh the delicate certainty of their future place in society and with one another. Though the signing of the treaty at Appomattox was in April of 1865, President Andrew Johnson did not officially declare the war over until May 10th. It is therefore unclear as to whether Caleb may actually be guilty of desertion in the face of Confederate defeat. Simon's family has been taken away. John is hiding in fear for his life from a man who is seeking retribution for an unnamed crime, later revealed in the final scene. John and Simon battle with their own resentments, as they contemplate finding affection and respect for this man Caleb, who once owned them like possessions. When Caleb speaks of loving Simon's daughter (who it appears is pregnant with Caleb's child), Simon hits the nail on the head when he declares that Caleb only loves her like he would a pet. As the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was not ratified until December 18th of that year, true freedom is still just a promise to John and Simon. They must come to terms with each other, and their own demons, as they share in a make-shift Passover Seder.
According to population studies conducted by Lee Soltow in 1971, an estimated 36 percent of the 625,000 families in the South in 1830 were slave holders. Many people in the audience including myself were surprised that there were Jewish slave owners in the South. However, Soltow goes on to say that "Nationwide, probably close to two-fifths of the Jewish families of 1820 owned slaves ... In Charleston, Richmond, and Savannah, the overwhelming proportion (over four-fifths) of the Jewish households contained one or more slaves; in New Orleans over three-fifths were slave holders." Stories focusing on the parallels between the slavery and imprisonment of Africans and Jews have oddly been left largely unexplored in books and movies. This particular story by Matthew Lopez is intelligent written and its subject matter quite compelling.
This production of The Whipping Man features an elegantly faded set, tattered clothes and unshaven faces. There is a dark, gruesome reality to Caleb's injury, and the amputation of his leg, that help to flavor this piece from the beginning. Nick Duckart as Caleb palpably swallows his fears and secrets. Though he is a man, there is the essence of him still being the callow, privileged child groomed to be the master. Brandon Morris as John sounds a bit too contemporary in his speech for a slave born in this time. His restless energy and intensity feel just right for the role, however. John Archie as Simon is at once strong, wise, and filled with anguish. Simon really owns his character and this play from start to finish with a truly commanding performance. With a good script and some fine acting, this play is well worth seeing.
The Whipping Man will be appearing through August 30, 2009 at the Caldwell Theatre. The Caldwell Theatre Company is a professional theatre company hiring local and non-local Equity and non-Equity actors. It is designated by the State of Florida as a Cultural Institution and receives funding from the State of Florida through the Florida Department of State, the Florida Arts Council and the Division of Cultural Affairs. The Caldwell is located in the Count De Hoernle Theatre at 7901 N. Federal Highway in Boca Raton, FL. Performance times are normally Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM. For information and/or tickets you may contact them by phone at 561-241-7432 or on line at www.caldwelltheatre.com.
*Indicates member of the Actor's Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.