BWW Reviews: The Black Rep's Powerful Production of THE WHIPPING MAN
The Whipping Man is a fascinating and intriguing look at religion and the aftereffects of emancipation that's set in the days following the end of the Civil War. It examines a subject unfamiliar to most, and that's the fact that there were slaves on plantations that were raised in the Jewish faith. This interesting twist gives this engaging and powerful story an educational depth that both informs and entertains. Playwright Mathew Lopez's work gets its St. Louis premiere with an excellent production by the Black Rep.
Set in Virginia in the remains of the ravaged DeLeon plantation, the play begins with Caleb DeLeon's unexpected arrival. He's a Confederate soldier who's been wounded and returns to his home hobbled and riding a horse that is barely able to make the journey before it collapses and dies. Caleb finds his homestead a burnt shell of its former glory, and encounters two former slaves inhabiting the remnants. One, Simon, is a wise and devout older man who advises Caleb to get treatment for a wound that's become gangrenous. But, Caleb is a deserter and insists on Simon aiding him, even if it means his infected limb must be removed. The other former slave, John, was once like a brother to Caleb before Caleb's father decided they were getting too close and took him to see "the whipping man". Now, John is consumed with a rage directed toward his former friend, and he's looking for a way to leave the plantation to start a new life. All this takes place as the Passover holiday arrives and their shared faith is put to the test.
Justin Ivan Brown is very good as Caleb, harboring secrets and a sense of shame that acts to sour his outlook. He's been through hell, but he still can't shake the pain of war or the terrible things he's been forced to do to John to appease his father. Ronald L. Conner is exceptional as John, and he brings a genuine feeling of anger to the role that energizes his portrayal. The interaction between the pair crackles with electricity, and Conner is especially strong as he recalls his trip to see "the whipping man". Ron Himes does excellent work as Simon, keeping the peace as best he can, while remaining true to his faith. Himes' even keel performance neatly acts as a balance that tempers the animosity that festers between Caleb and John.
Director Ed Smith does a fine job drawing intense and believable performances from his talented triumvirate. There's never a dull moment to be found, and the pace bristles along at a nice clip. The scenic design of Tim Case is simply terrific, deftly constructing the ruins of a plantation that has been thoroughly damaged by both the North and the South. Mark Wilson's lighting and projection design adds a great deal of drama and atmosphere to the proceedings, and Lou Bird's costumes are period perfect. Robin Weatherall's sound design also acts to set the overall mood.
The Black Rep's premiere production of The Whipping Man is very well done and definitely worthy of your time and attention. It continues through April 13, 2013 at the Grandel Theatre.