BWW Reviews: Faith Makes a Family in THE WHIPPING MAN at the Pico Playhouse
What does it mean to have faith in God? What makes a family? These two questions fuel conflicting passions in the Los Angeles premiere of Matthew Lopez's THE WHIPPING MAN, directed with a deep understanding of the Jewish faith by Howard Teichman, Artistic Director of West Coast Jewish Theatre.
When you walk in, the set designed by Kurtis Bedford gives the illusion of a multiple story home now in ruins while sound designer Bill Froggatt's threatening storm lets you know all is not well in the world. It is April 1865. The Civil War is over and throughout the South slaves are being freed, soldiers are returning home, and in Jewish homes the annual holiday of Passover is being celebrated in the chaos of war-torn Richmond, VA.
Into the darkened room stumbles Caleb DeLeon (Shawn Savage), a young Jewish Confederate officer who has been severely wounded, and Savage's painful screams will chill you to the bone. He can barely walk, yet somehow has managed to return home in search of his family and the woman he left behind. Confined to a bed during most of the play, Savage shares the torment in his body and mind from moment to moment using the gamut of facial expressions originating from deep within Caleb's troubled soul.
In a flashback masterfully lit by Ellen Monocroussous, Savage appears to be a ghostly phantom as he shares treasured love letters written by Caleb to Sarah while he was confined in the filthy trenches of war. With just a tip of his head at the end, Savage conveys the downtrodden spirit of a war-torn young man.
When Caleb arrives home, the only person there is Simon (Ricco Ross), the former slave who ran the DeLeon house, prepared their Kosher meals, and was raised Jewish to better serve the family's religious needs. Even though there is little for Simon to live on, he has remained given a promise made to him by the DeLeon family's Patriarch before he left for safer ground with Simon's wife and daughter. Ross is a revelation in the role, especially during the Passover Seder he prepares to celebrate freedom after just finding out Abraham Lincoln has been killed. His deep, heartfelt abiding faith in Father Abraham, the emancipator of the slaves, runs as deep as his Jewish faith. Mr. Ross, your soulful rendition of "Let My People Go" celebrating freedom will ring in my ears at every Seder I attend for the rest of my life.
And then there is John (Kirk Kelleykahn), a wily former slave now looting the abandoned local homes to survive. He arrives at his former home only to be forced into helping Simon operate on Caleb's gangrenous leg. Thankfully John has brought much-needed whiskey with him, the only antiseptic and pain-killer the men have at their disposal. The shocking reactions of both John and Caleb when they see Simon pull out a saw sent chills down my spine. How could anyone endure that kind of pain and survive?
Throughout the play, John manages to bring home what is needed when it is needed, right down to china plates to be used during the family Seder. Kelleykahn convincingly shares John's great bravado as he accomplishes what seems to be impossible, as well as the insecurity of a man who has no idea of where he is going in life, living as best he can. And when all three men finally reveal deeply held secrets, long hidden relationships between them are revealed.
These three men are a family, even if they do not want to believe it themselves. And even though all three men have been raised Jewish, you don't have to be Black or Jewish, let alone both, to appreciate this provocative drama in which questions are posed leading to answers that pose further questions. Just keep asking them to maintain your faith in God, knowing that all things will work out exactly as planned.
THE WHIPPING MAN continues on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through April 13. Tickets range from $25-$35 and are available online at www.wcjt.org or by phone at (323) 821-2449.
The Pico Playhouse is located at 10508 W. Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, 90064.
Production Photos by Michael Lamont
Caleb (Shawn Savage) stumbles home
Shawn Savage, Ricco Ross
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