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BWW Reviews: Eddie George Leads Stellar Nashville Rep WHIPPING MAN

Eddie George, actor. After years of pursuing his dream, of plying his trade, perfecting his craft, it is now apparent that Eddie George - the once and future Tennessee Titan, pro football Hall of Fame member, Heisman Trophy winner, the very personification of professional sports in a town known worldwide as Music City USA - is one of this region's finest actors. He's paid his dues and in doing so, he silences his detractors with his most recent onstage role in Nashville Rep's stunning production of Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man, now onstage at TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre through February 21.

Sharing the stage with James Rudolph and Matthew Rosenbaum - two of Nashville's most versatile and accomplished young actors - George commands the stage with confidence, taking on the role of Simon in Lopez's tale of post-Civil War regrets and recriminations with an unbridled sense of purpose and determination that is at once searing and enlightening. The three actors, under the guidance of director Rene Copeland and with the support of Nashville Rep's team of gloriously theatrical designers, technicians and artists, deliver a tale that challenges preconceived notions of the Civil War South, holding a mirror up to a population still somewhat divided in their loyalties to and attitudes about the antebellum South, and the events that led to the war which united the various states of the Union into the singular United States of America.

Eddie George, Matthew Rosenbaum and James Rudolph

Lopez's fascination with the War Between the States informs his script with much attention to detail and provides The Whipping Man with an intriguing basis for the play's action. The role of Jews in the Confederacy (Judah P. Benjamin, the secretary of war - who later became secretary of state - who was widely considered "the brains of the Confederacy," nonetheless was reviled by Southern anti-semites; and Robert E. Lee reportedly was at least somewhat respectful to his Jewish soldiers) is not widely known or discussed, which makes the subject fertile for writers and historians considering the conflict in the 150th anniversary year of Lee's surrender at Appomattox. And now seems a particularly good time for the presentation of the play for local audiences, falling so close to the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Nashville (December 1864), which proved cataclysmic for the Confederacy and hastened the end of the war.

Copeland deftly maneuvers her trio of actors around Gary Hoff's beautifully appointed and artfully timeworn set (a war-ravaged mansion in Richmond, just after the fall of the Confederacy) with her usual grace. Copeland's gift for completely understanding a script's multi-layered messages and meanings, replete with the sophistries and meanderings of a playwright's mind, pays off splendidly with her interpretation of The Whipping Man. She is neither didactic nor needlessly deferential, rather she allows the story to play out with a heightened sense of drama that underscores the savageries of war, the blatant inhumanity of slavery and the day-to-day minutiae of life in a particular household - even one left barely standing in the aftermath of a seemingly endless wartime siege.

The world represented so vividly in Lopez's tightly woven script for The Whipping Man is as far beyond the popular Southern notions of Gone With the Wind or other pop culture depictions of the world of belles and beaux propped up by a slave economy in the new world that still clings to European conventions as one might imagine. Rather, his vision might feel even more contemporary if not for the fact that war and its ravages have been felt by various warring peoples for as long as the world has existed, particularly in the intervening years since the end of the War Between the States. As a result, the world of The Whipping Man, created by Lopez, interpreted by Copeland and her creative team, and then brought to life by Messrs. George, Rudolph and Rosenbaum, is compelling and off-putting in its realism, yet tantalizingly appealing in its presentation.

Particularly compelling is the specter of the eponymous Whipping Man whose offstage presence plays such a horrifying role in the lives of the men onstage, and which elicits untold visceral reactions of the audience.

The play's consideration of the religion of its characters is intriguing, reminding us of the fact that slaves more often than not worshipped in the same way of their masters, assuming the religious mantles of their owners despite their own human nature and their longing for freedom from the chains that bound them to the people who claimed them as chattel. So while we might be surprised by the fact that Simon and John are practicing Jews, it reaffirms history as we should know it, and the obvious parallels of Jews being freed from slavery in Egypt and the freedom of African slaves in America in the not-so-distant past are shattering, an example of real life intruding upon long-held beliefs. Thus, your perceptions of life and faith - and man's inhumanity to man - are challenged by the realities of a history you might not have known.

Clearly, the provocative subject matter and the way its story is told make The Whipping Man the perfect catalyst for conversation, shedding light on our shared history while evoking comparisons to the world in which we now live; a world where things may have changed exponentially, but which remains cloaked in the prejudices with which we must struggle every day in order to overcome.

James Rudolph and Matthew Rosenbaum

In the play, we are introduced to Caleb DeLeon (Rosenbaum), the scion of a well-to-do Richmond family whose home is left in near-ruins by the Civil War. The prominent, Jewish DeLeons are slaveholders (its patriarch, Caleb's father, is a member of Confederate president Jefferson Davis' entourage, sent fleeing into the night by the Federal defeat of Southern forces) and their home is inhabited only by Simon (George), the family's retainer whose relative familiarity and ease masks the truth of his horrific experiences as a slave. John (Rudolph) completes the family scene, giving audiences a slightly different take on the life of slaves in the DeLeon household and leavening the weightiness of the script's drama with his well-timed expressions of comic relief.

The action of the play moves along at a good pace and is acted with precision by George, Rudolph and Rosenbaum, each of whom is tightly focused on the job at hand and well aware of the gravitas of the characters and of the story with which they are entrusted.

George's multi-layered, multi-dimensional portrayal of Simon propels the action for an audience completely riveted by his performance. He is a Nashville treasure, a high profile individual who represents our city's emergence among the first rank of American cities - he makes us look welcoming and cosmopolitan in his role of football legend, sports commentator and capable businessman - and with this role, which builds upon his past performances, he rises to the top ranks of local actors. George's Simon is superbly articulated and movingly played, showing off to perfection the hard work the actor has poured into his own development as an artist.

Rudolph, whose resume is as varied as any you'll find among Nashville area actors, cements his place in the acting community with a performance that is singularly appealing, yet fraught with the palpable sense that he has endured the atrocities visited upon John. Almost sweetly naïve at first glance, Rudolph plays John with unfettered glee, tearing into the stage-bound script with a sense of focused abandon that enables him to soar dramatically and artistically.

Eddie George and James Rudolph

Rosenbaum, who first came to our attention by way of performances in The Drowsy Chaperone and Dancing at Lughnasa at Belmont University, continues to fulfill the promise displayed in those two memorable roles. With effortless ease, Rosenbaum becomes each character he plays, effectively focusing the audience's attention on him while generously sharing the spotlight with the other actors lucky enough to be onstage with him.

The Whipping Man adds yet another star to the theatrical crown of Nashville Rep, now in its 30th year of presenting compelling and challenging theater for an audience that craves it - and expects it from Copeland and her creative team, who are at the height of their artistic powers. 2011 First Night Honoree Hoff's exquisite scenic design is just the latest in his seemingly unending string of eye-poppingly gorgeous stage sets, while Michael Barnett's evocative and atmospheric lighting design provides its perfect accompaniment, illuminating the onstage action to ideal effect. Trish Clark's pitch perfect costume design helps ease the three actors into their roles, allowing each man to portray his character with finesse. Ricky Lighthall's sound design adds an aural element to the production that cannot be understated and the show's musical score (which includes period music that helps to set the tone of the production) helps to capture the particular moment in time that is represented in the play.

  • The Whipping Man. By Matthew Lopez. Directed by Rene Dunshee Copeland. Presented by Nashville Repertory Theatre at TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre, Nashville. Through February 21. For details, go to www.nashvillerep.org. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission)


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From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner l... (read more about this author)


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