Men of War Find Redemption in The Whipping Man

The ways in which revolutions disrupt the lives of the winners has been well documented. In Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man, we consider the losers — in this case, of the Civil War — and reside, courtesy of a strong production at the Black Theatre Troupe, with three actors whose energy and dramatic urgency elevate a frankly talky play into a thoughtful entertainment.

The story, set in Richmond, Virginia, in the days following the Civil War, concerns a trio of Jewish men, two of whom were once the property of the third. Caleb DeLeon is an injured Confederate soldier who returns to his family home to discover a bombed-out ruin. His parents have fled, leaving behind two of their newly freed slaves: Simon, the former head man of the DeLeon house, and John, a young man just Caleb's age, with whom he was raised. Each of the men harbors a secret about himself, and about the nature of his and others' relationships to one another, and Lopez reveals these secrets only after laying bare the hope that has kept each of the men alive. Simon looks forward to being reunited with his wife and daughter, who've left with the DeLeons; John wants nothing more than the freedom promised him by a new world order; Caleb longs for a life that he refuses to admit is beyond him now.

In the play's most moving scene, the former slaves and their newly crippled master share an improvised Passover meal. The Seder prayers meant to honor the freedom of the Israelites in Egypt take on new meaning here, but Lopez avoids obvious parallels between these long-ago events and the freeing of the Southern slaves (who are also Jewish) in his story. It's a subtlety that adds still more depth to an already poignant play.

Rod Ambrose is, as always, excellent as the enlightened former slave whose dreams brighten the somber tone set by the many long harangues of his young charges. Phillip Herrington allows us to see Caleb, the privileged white soldier, become more human a little at a time. And DéOnte Lemons wrestles more emotion and depth from Nigger John than there is on the page; if there's a best performance among the three, it may belong to this young actor.

The Whipping Man, clearly written in the earnest cause of redemption, moves slowly toward its surprising conclusion. But thanks to director Robyn Allen's firm hand, and subtle and convincing performances from a sterling cast, the story manages never to languish in the melancholy which might, in a lesser production, have sunk it.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela