The Whipping Man: Theater Review

A fascinating and intelligent drama about a wounded Confederate officer returning home after the fall of Richmond. 

A Jewish Confederate soldier returns to his ruined home to celebrate Passover with his newly freed slaves, who also practice the faith, in this story of freedom from bondage.

In the backwash of 12 Years a Slave, a film most notable for how it reflects on the present day rather than solely as a window into the past, Matthew Lopez's play The Whipping Man stands out as a different sort of inquiry into the meaning of freedom, which it accurately depicts as much as a matter of the soul and spirit as the body.

Caleb DeLeon (Shawn Savage), scion of a slave-owning Sephardic family who has inculcated their religion into their household as faithfully as did the gentiles, drags his gangrenous leg through the abandoned and pillaged Richmond to find refuge at his ravaged home. His loyal retainer Simon (Ricco Ross) undertakes to amputate the leg when Caleb refuses to be taken to the veteran’s hospital. Caleb’s boyhood companion, the rebellious John (Kirk Kelleykahn), also has stayed behind, looting to provide them with essentials, including bottles of whiskey.

In time-honored dramaturgy, nothing in these intimate and coercive relationships proves to be either as it seems or as the characters perceive it. The plot contains enough surprises to constitute a damn good yarn, though the biggest revelation is its invocation of recognizable Jewish values as an animating force in everyone’s lives. Simon, though unlettered, can be an eloquent spokesman for the moral values of a spiritual tradition with which he identifies fully, notwithstanding its source from his oppressors. He is a better Jew than they are, and he knows it. He improvises a Passover Seder in the destroyed house for the three of them, garden celery for parsley, hardtack for matzoh, and, he jokes, Caleb’s severed calf bone for the roasted lamb shank (they use his butchered horse).  

Caleb, profoundly conflicted and broken, can acknowledge the hypocrisy and calumny of his family’s implication in the “peculiar institution,” though he avoids accepting responsibility through rationalization and denial of the insufferable cruelty. He frequently and feebly asserts that they treated Simon and John so much better than anyone else would have, accurate as far as it goes, but woefully short of exculpatory. He can accept his slaves as free men, though his old habits die hard.

The debates over morality and webs of attachment and obligation range over a wide swath of issues and questions, and playwright Lopez doesn’t scant their bedeviling complexity. It also comes as a relief that director Howard Teichman has managed to convey an authentic taste of Jewish belief and ritual, even helping the excellent actors accomplish not merely credible Virginia accents, but also admirable Hebrew pronunciation (many a talented performer has floundered with those consonants and vowels).

Savage acquits himself impressively in a role that forces him to remain prone and immobile for most of the action, and Kelleykahn makes an indelible individual out of a character who risks validating racial stereotypes by projecting specific motivations, even while hiding them from the others. All perform in a heroic mode that is not so common any longer in the modern drama, and Ross especially assumes the impressive stature of a believably larger-than-life figure whose inner strength can nevertheless be overwhelmed by injustice.

Indeed, The Whipping Man can be old-fashioned to a fault, sometimes slipping into awkward exposition, posturing declamation and clunky interactions. It requires a forgiving, generous attitude to appreciate its genuine originality and substance, but met on its own terms, it is a novel and thought-provoking insight into an astonishing historic fact, making a true contribution to a more nuanced understanding of how things were, but also the way we remain now. 

Venue: The Pico Playhouse, Rancho Park (runs through April 13)

Cast: Ricco Ross, Shawn Savage, Kirk Kelleykahn

Director & Producer: Howard Teichman

Playwright: Matthew Lopez    

Set designer: Kurtis Bedford

Lighting designer: Ellen Monocroussos

Sound designer: Bill Froggatt

Costume designer: Michele Young

A West Coast Jewish Theatre presentation