UPDATED 4/18/13 to correct the name of the playwright, Matthew Lopez.
"The Whipping Man" by Matthew Lopez begins in desolation and ends with not much more than a speck of hope — a meager sense of opportunity if the characters can somehow overcome years (even centuries) of experience (and history). Despite its refusal to provide easy answers for the many ethical and personal conflicts it portrays (though doesn't necessarily illuminate), the play is almost unfailingly intense, dropping emotional bombshell after emotional bombshell until its final quiet 10 minutes.
The 2006 play begins late at night on April 13, 1865, four days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox and one day before Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Caleb, a wounded Confederate soldier and the son of once-wealthy Jewish parents, returns home to Richmond. The family's house is in ruins, shattered by artillery and fire, and picked bare by looters. It is deserted except for two slaves, the elderly but still vigorous Simon and the younger, less settled John, who need to teach their young master that things have changed.
If you think that sounds melodramatic and a little too neat, you're reading me right. After a friendly reunion in which Caleb fails to recognize that he can no longer give orders, no matter how pleasantly, Simon realizes that the young man's wound is gangrenous, and he and John must remove the leg. The preparation for the amputation makes for some harrowing moments but also gives the play its emotional marker. The dark secrets that tumble out thereafter — from desertion to miscegenation — are sometimes shocking but also sometimes predictable and even obvious. To reveal them in any detail would be unfair. Suffice it to say that just behind the story lurk an upstanding moral father who sells two slaves because one of them is pregnant, and an all-too-familiar sexual relationship between master and slave that is also (implausibly) romantic.
Does that make the plot sound like a cousin to a mystery story? In a way, yes. It parcels out suppressed information and then watches what happens — except there's no easy solution at the end. What gives the play resonance is the unusual fact that the family and its slaves are Jewish. The three men celebrate a makeshift Seder that is more important to Simon and John than to Caleb, who lost his faith at Petersburg. The irony is dramatic but also obvious: Jews, for whom the liberation from slavery is the essential historical event and metaphor of their faith, now own slaves.
For the slaves of Richmond, the Whipping Man is, likewise, memory and metaphor. He is the unseen brute to whom their masters sent them to be whipped and scarred. As they drink "liberated" wine and chew hardtack in place of matzoh, the characters' conversations and conflicts take on an ethical dimension that gives the play scope despite the bluntness of its irony.
What nuance the play has resides largely in the character of Simon, played by David Alan Anderson. He is the play's wise old black man — a stereotype eased by Anderson's humanizing embodiment of his decency, capacity for both hope and cruelty, and rock solid practicality. He seems to know almost everything as he waits for the return of his wife and daughter.
Rather than resisting the play's melodramatic elements, director Tim Ocel apparently chose to emphasize them through a series of poses and gestures that feel larger and more mannered than called for by reality. He also lets two set pieces about eating go on too long. More importantly, Tyler Jacob Rollinson as John is capable of ferocious intensity but Ocel indulged his often-studied performance. The task was to keep the one while weeding out the other. Caleb, played by Andrew C. Ahrens, is the least fully developed character of the three even though he has the most to learn. His set speech to open Act 2 consists of a letter we learn about within the play, itself.
Kendall Smith's bleak light sheds little warmth within the ruined house, a strong set designed by Erhard Rom.
The play will have more than 15 professional productions this season alone. I can understand why. It's the kind of substantive melodrama that used to thrive on Broadway from the 1930's through the 1950's — such plays as "The Children's Hour" (1939), "I Am a Camera" (1951), and "Inherit the Wind" (1955). I don't mean that negatively. "The Whipping Man" is a well crafted, strongly written, accessible play that engages its audience emotionally. Its concern for ethical imperatives and conundrums after the dust settles are reassuring in a time of empty spectacle, even if the play sheds little new light on the inner struggles its characters bare and bear.