A captivating Civil War-era tale of faith, race
PITTSFIELD — A powerful play on a compelling and underexplored topic — the vexed relationship of slave-owning Jews and blacks in the American South — “The Whipping Man’’ offers plenty of sharp dialogue and emotional storytelling for its three actors. If only the playwright, Matthew Lopez, weren’t a little too fond of explaining everything for us, it could rise to the level of greatness.
Even so, Christopher Innvar’s production at Barrington Stage Company makes a strong case for the play, and Clarke Peters, as the newly freed slave who is its moral center, gives a performance so finely shaded and so fully realized as to make the play worth seeing for his work alone. It’s in his loaded silences, in fact, that you see how easily Lopez could have trimmed the speechifying and trusted his actors to make the story breathe.
It’s quite a story, too. Just after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, a Confederate soldier crawls painfully through the doorway of a ruined mansion in Richmond, Va., where he’s greeted by a family servant brandishing a rifle. They soon recognize each other: The soldier, Caleb, is the son of the mansion’s owner, who’s fled the city before the “Federals’’ arrive from the North, leaving the servant, Simon, behind to guard the homestead and await the family’s return. Simon immediately sees that Caleb is grievously wounded — in fact, Simon tells him, his leg will have to be amputated.
Caleb is curiously unwilling to go to the army hospital (foreshadowing one of the plot’s many revelations, but one that will hardly come as a surprise by the time it appears) and persuades Simon to perform the surgery himself. Meanwhile, another former slave has returned: John, who’s about Caleb’s age and who, we quickly realize, has a few secrets of his own.
Before we can get to that, though, there’s that leg. And after a more detailed description of the exact procedure than seems strictly necessary, Simon orders Caleb to guzzle some whiskey and gets out his tools. Mercifully, the lights black out just as the saw comes down.
And that’s just the first scene.
Things get less physically grisly, but more emotionally wrenching, as the story unfolds. As students of Civil War history will already have realized, the play is set in mid-April 1865; what they may not immediately have realized is that that means it’s Passover. And Simon, raised by his Jewish owners to be an observant Jew himself, sets about preparing a Seder — despite the scant provisions available and the abundant objections of Caleb, who says he no longer prays to a God who was invisible to him on the battlefield.
“War is not proof of God’s absence,’’ Simon replies. “It’s proof of His absence from men’s hearts.’’
The simple, epigrammatic force of such statements shows Lopez’s writing at its strongest. So does a brief exchange between Caleb and John, after John has “liberated’’ some furniture and finery from a neighboring house:
“What are you going to do with all this?’’
“Because I can.’’
Elsewhere, though, the playwright lets his pen run away with him — particularly in a flowery letter that Caleb reads aloud, making a singularly awkward opening for the second act, and in some of the more melodramatic twists of the tale. (He also slides in a few jarring anachronisms, notably “it is what it is.’’) It’s too bad, because the painful ironies of the situation — of a former slaveowner and former slaves joining together to celebrate the end of slavery in Egypt, even as it ends around them — are dramatically rich.
In the end, that’s what makes “The Whipping Man’’ worth watching — that, and the remarkable Peters. LeRoy McClain, as John, and Nick Westrate, as Caleb, have some strong moments as well. But it’s Peters, from his first, fierce appearance, through an understated and powerful anecdote about Abraham Lincoln, right until his bittersweet last line, who makes his character, and this play, come alive.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.