BWW Reviews: Stages Repertory Theatre's THE WHIPPING MAN is Intensely Riveting
Matthew Lopez's drama THE WHIPPING MAN premiered in April 2006 at the Luna Stage Company in Montclair, New Jersey. In February 2011, it had its New York Premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club, which received rave reviews and extended four times due to consistently selling out. Additionally, it garnered Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards and the John Gassner New Play Award from the New York Outer Critics Circle. Since then, it has been one of the most widely produced new American plays. Now, Stages Repertory Theatre is presenting Houston with the Regional Premiere of the interesting and celebrated work.
Set in April 1865, the play draws fascinating parallels between the Jews and African-Americans, which was inspired by the Matthew Lopez's discovery of the Passover observance beginning the day after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. The action unfolds in the charred remains of the DeLeon's Richmond, Virigina home. Badly injured Confederate officer Caleb DeLeon has returned from the war to discover his family has deserted their home. Former DeLeon family Slave, Simon is keeping watch over the house. Another former slave, John, also returns to the home, and together the three men confront their shared past, new identities, explore new and old family secrets, and just how damaging slavery and war is to the human soul.
For this production, Director Seth Gordon has assembled a perfect cast, and he has coached them to deliver emotionally gripping performances. While mostly brilliant, the writing has a couple of moments that are too predictable (especially concerning some revelations made late in the production); however, Seth Gordon brings out the emotional and psychological weight of these revelations with his cast, making them satisfying for the audience. As his cast puts the show in front of us, we experience the physical agony of wartime pain in a gut wrenching and visceral opening scene; yet, it is the well-acted psychological trauma of bondage and war that profoundly moves us.
Leading the play is Shawn Hamilton's Simon, the former slave charged with guarding the once grand DeLeon home. The character is novel for being an African-American Jew in the South in 1865. The DeLeon family was Jewish, and as a DeLeon family slave, so was Simon. Navigating a new identity as a freed American, he still holds fast to the religion. It is through his conversations about theology that Matthew Lopez's writing examines the parallels between the Jews freedom from slavery in Egypt to the emancipation of African-American slaves in the United States. Likewise, Shawn Hamilton fills the stage with humanity and a desire to preserve human dignity, as he claims it is his duty as a human to aide any person in need of assistance. It is this respectable moral fiber that encompasses the character and sets him at odds with John, creating meaty conflict in the production.
Ross Bautsch's Caleb DeLeon returns home and seemingly expects to find things as they were. The crippled remains of his family's home, which has withstood artillery shelling, dismays him and mirrors his own destruction. Like his family's home, Ross Bautsch's Caleb is damaged inside and out. He is suffering from a bullet wound in his leg, and he has not adjusted to the fact that Simon and John are no longer his chattel to command, which both men have to remind him of. Moreover, the war has mentally altered him, causing him to lose faith in his religion and humanity as well. Every ounce of Caleb DeLeon's devastation is brought to enthralling life by Ross Bautsch's commanding performance, and as an audience, we are entirely sympathetic to the character.
Sly and cocky John, who has turned to looting, is played with charisma and energy by Joseph Palmore. Post emancipation, his arrogant, wily character is foolhardy and turns to criminal activities in the post war chaos. Despite Simon's displeasure with his robbing the abandoned homes in Richmond, Virginia, the looted goods, especially the whiskey, prove to be invaluable and rather indispensable as Simon attempts to heal Caleb's physical wounds and as the trio prepares their Passover Seder. Dealing with his own emotional and psychological damage, Joseph Palmore characterizes the cocksure John in a way that hides his turmoil and anguish behind a self-constructed wall, which works well in opposition to Caleb's ever-present visible grief.
Jobi Bobrovsky's Scenic Design, resplendent with a touch of the Southern Gothic aesthetic, recreates the opulence and majesty of a large Southern home on the intimate Yeager stage. The cracked and ruined plaster, the exposed wooden laths, the holes in the floor, the broken glass windows, and the weathering of the home all serve as reminders to the physical and psychological destruction of the South during the Civil War. The home's injuries mirror the injuries of the three characters all while providing a tonally appropriate and powerful backdrop for Matthew Lopez's words to be brought to life upon.
Renee Brode's shadowy Lighting Design is nicely moody and atmospheric. The stage is bathed is swathes of darkness for portions of the show, keeping the audience tense and attending to the characters. Moreover, the effect used to give the impression of rain falling outside of the home looks great behind the broken windows.
With this Regional Premiere of Matthew Lopez's THE WHIPPING MAN, Stages Repertory Theatre is kicking off Houston's summery selections with an intensely visceral and altogether powerful drama. The minimal lumps in the writing are easily forgiven because of Seth Gordon's capable direction and Ross Bautsch, Shawn Hamilton, and Joseph Palmore's riveting performances.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.
THE WHIPPING MAN, produced by Stages Repertory Theatre, runs in Stages' Yeager Theater, 3201 Allen Parkway, Suite 101, Houston, 77019 now through May 25, 2014. Performances are Wednesday and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://stagestheatre.com or call (713) 527-0123.
Photos by Bruce Bennett. Courtesy of Stages Repertory Theatre.
Joseph Palmore as John and Ross Bautsch as Caleb.