In Matthew Lopez’s masterful drama “The Whipping Man” the action opens in the deepest interior of a ruined home immediately after the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery. A wounded rebel soldier, Caleb, stumbles into the wreckage on a leg that will no longer support him, only to be recognized by his family’s former house slave, Simon, and with that to realize that he has returned to what remains of his home. Also present is another former slave, a younger, brash young man named John, who grew up with Caleb and who is only here now in order to acquire the means to set out for a new life in the North. Assessing an untreated gunshot wound, Simon insists to Caleb that the leg must be removed or he will face a death more terrible than anything he can imagine. The first scene ends with the brutal amputation of that leg and the play follows with a series of amputations of the past from the lives of these three Jewish men seeking to honor the Passover.
Their religion is a connection stronger than their individual lives, their individual experiences, and part of the power of this play is the way it makes that history, that culture of struggle, into a unifying symbol of their journey into a new Promised Land of freedom and equality. There is nothing simple or didactic about this extremely intelligent drama, only the genuinely powerful, intensely felt and layered complexity of their place in this family, in this history, in each other’s lives and in the world.Scott Nolte directs three fully committed and focused actors into a performance where we hear every word, live every experience. It is the kind of theatre that reminds us of the intimacy, dignity and consequence the stage can achieve.
As that wounded child, mind besmirched by the horror and blood and pointless cost of battle, Ryan Childers plays Caleb with exactly the right stature to be an ordinary man who has endured extraordinary hardship. William Hall, Jr. is so commanding as Simon that we have no choice but to accept that he is the elder who is the only one who can hold these tattered remains of family and faith together. The balance between his good humor and his hard-earned experience, and the conviction with which he honors his faith and his heritage elevate him in ways much more spiritual than social. That depth of character also allows him to be the measure against which Caleb, and especially John, must measure themselves. Tyler Trerise is full of young arrogance and unresolved bitterness over his former life as a slave, and over debts which he believes will never be repaid. Trerise has just the right blend of cockiness and insecurity, decency and irreverence, belonging and alienation. The way these three uncover their stories, the natural flow of the dramatic revelations and the gripping, often unexpected conflicts through which they reveal themselves to each other comprise a textbook in dramatic writing.
“The Whipping Man” is a superior piece of theatrical production, but it is important for reasons beyond that. I don’t think it’s possible to watch this play and not be drawn back to the immediacy of war’s terrible aftermath, then and now, nor to avoid the overwhelming relevance to our own times, our ongoing struggle to define and engage equality, and the ongoing questions of racial and religious relationships and how we might create a more perfect union. Beyond that, the sense of continuity these men discover with the lives of those who have come before is the same connection that we feel to them and their common history. That is called consequence. I left the theatre thinking, “Oh, yeah. That’s why theatre is important, and not just entertainment.” Go see
“The Whipping Man”. And then talk about it afterwards, because I guarantee you won't stop thinking about it.
PICTURED ABOVE: Ryan Childers and William Hall, Jr. in The Whipping Man at Taproot Theatre.
PHOTO BY: Erik Stuhaug