BWW Review: THE WHIPPING MAN Cuts Deep at New Rep
The Whipping Man
Written by Matthew Lopez, Directed by Benny Sato Ambush; Scenic Designer, Janie E. Howland; Costume & Makeup Designer, Molly Trainer; Lighting Designer, Scott Pinkney; Sound Designer & Composer, Dewey Dellay; Stage Manager, Leslie Sears
CAST: Johnny Lee Davenport, Jesse Hinson, Keith Mascoll
The stage in the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts is not shielded by a curtain, thus allowing the audience full view of the set before the show begins. What we see is Scenic Designer Janie E. Howland's rendering of the war-torn wreckage of a stately antebellum home, with broken or missing panes of glass, walls ripped open, and devoid of furnishings, save for a spindly chair or two. When the lights go down, there are occasional flashes of lightning amidst loud claps of thunder and the gentle sound of rain. A dark figure crashes through double doors into the room and falls to the floor. As we are already aware of the visual world of the play, we can sense his whereabouts even in the dim candlelight.
The opening scene is a harbinger of the dramatic events to come in the Boston premiere of Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man at New Repertory Theatre. Set in Richmond, Virginia, in April, 1865, at the conclusion of the Civil War, the play looks at the sudden change in the relationship between a Jewish Confederate soldier returning home and the two former slaves who have remained in the ruins. Raised as Jews by their owners, the DeLeon family, Simon (Johnny Lee Davenport) and John (Keith Mascoll) have been more loyal to and better served by their faith than the traumatized and severely wounded scion Caleb (Jesse Hinson). Despite the latter's bitterness and the need to scrounge for the ritualistic symbols, Simon forges ahead with his plan to conduct a Passover Seder on the eve of the holiday which celebrates the Jews escaping from bondage in ancient Egypt.
The basic premise of The Whipping Man is interesting from historical and sociological perspectives, but Lopez makes it more compelling by employing the framing device of Passover, drawing a parallel between the end of the Jewish enslavement and the newfound freedom of American slaves, as well as casting Abraham Lincoln in a role similar to Moses. As his characters grapple with the broader changes thrust upon them by the defeat of the Confederacy, Lopez also focuses on the narrower scope of how that will impact the lives of these three men in relation to each other. He makes good use of the past as prologue, gradually peeling back layers of denial, pain, and resentment to reveal secrets, both old and new, that will determine the course that each man must follow.
There is little action in the play as it all takes place in the grand foyer of the house, although Simon and John exit to other (unseen) rooms or venture outside. For the most part, Caleb is covered with a blanket and restricted to a chair after undergoing amputation of his lower leg (also unseen), but stands downstage in a red spotlight during an emotional flashback scene. Director Benny Sato Ambush sets a deliberately slow pace, reflecting the tedium of post-war daily life, when finding food and supplies is a battle and survival is paramount. There are times when it feels too static and it lags, but never for long because the material and the performances are gripping.
Davenport is masterful in building his character from the ground up. Simon is weary, but steadfast with a seriousness of purpose as he takes charge of the situation, doing what has to be done in the face of Caleb's life-threatening injury. Knowing that he is free, Simon walks a fine line between self-respect and respect for the other man because that's how he thinks it should be. When he informs Caleb that he should be asking Simon for something, rather than telling him to do it, Davenport shows grace and patience, as if instructing a child. Simon is true to himself and, although flawed like any man, does his best to practice his faith and encourages the two younger men to do the same. The character is well-written and Davenport brings forth each of his many dimensions, going deep into the well for the climactic reveal just before he departs the stage.
John and Caleb were raised like brothers, but for the obvious fact that the former was owned by the latter. Mascoll balances the large chip on his shoulder with a lighter, devil may care demeanor that camouflages his anger and resentment. He seems like a goofball, scavenging the countryside for whiskey, eggs, dishes, and flatware, but he shows a mean streak when he chips away at Caleb's story and taunts him over the personal letters he finds. When John recounts the trauma of being taken to the whipping man, Mascoll's wild-eyed look and foot stomping to replicate the sound are gut-wrenching and chilling. At the conclusion of his reenactment, you could hear a pin drop.
Hinson performs most of his role lying on the floor or covered up on a chair, but conveys a wide range of feelings with an economy of movement. He shows both physical and emotional pain, fear, bewilderment, understanding, shame, and love, among others. Caleb's relief upon coming home is quickly turned upside down by the wreckage of his home and the destruction of the old social order. Hinson lets us see the wheels slowly revolving as he comes to terms with the changes and tries to put himself back together in a way that will fit this new world.
The warm glow of candlelight (Scott Pinkney, Lighting Designer) and the background sounds of a rainstorm (Dewey Dellay, Sound Designer) create an inviting atmosphere, in spite of the aura of conflict that permeates the room. Caleb's soiled and torn Confederate Army uniform and the worn, country-style garb of Simon and John are the work of Costume Designer Molly Trainer. Her makeup design gives Caleb an appropriate pallor, as well as a couple of layers of dirt picked up in the trenches. There are some light-hearted moments that occur naturally in The Whipping Man, but it is a work of drama that is moving and thought-provoking. Ambush and the actors let the tension ebb and flow as in a piece of music, ultimately building to a crescendo that resounds like crashing cymbals. It does not go unnoticed that Davenport, Mascoll, and Hinson feel the impact of the play along with the audience. They tell the story with sensitivity and commitment, and none of their eyes is dry when it comes to its conclusion.
Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures (Jesse Hinson, Johnny Lee Davenport, Keith Mascoll)