The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez. Directed by Christopher Innvar.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"To remind us of the bitterness of slavery. As if we needed reminding."
Clarke Peters & Nick Westrate; photo: Kevin Sprague
Three men, a white civil war soldier of the south, an elderly black slave and a younger black - on the run from the murder of a white man, meet in an almost abandoned southern plantation house in Richmond Virginia during the festival of Passover. They know one another. They’ve known one another most of their lives. The soldier is injured and need to have his leg amputated. The old man is celebrating his newly declared freedom. The fugitive is rejoicing in his strength and his financial future as he perceives it. The three of them create and perform a ritual Passover seder which brings up secrets and long-withheld relationships. What results from all this is the understanding that freedom doesn’t necessarily make one free. We are all encumbered in this world.
This recent play by Matthew Lopez is making its regional debut at Barrington Stage Company’s second stage space in Pittsfield, MA. It has already appeared in Minnesota and Palm Beach and is also currently on stage in San Diego. This is good, for the play is excellent and should be seen in as many places as possible.
It asks a profound question: "Were we slaves or were we Jews?" There is a mental approach to a situation that is addressed here, a question of attitude, a breach perhaps of understanding. Who and what are we when we shed the illusions other people thrust upon us? This, the direction by Christopher Innvar, and the players themselves make "The Whipping Man" a most intriguing and enjoyable two hours and ten minutes of theater.
Innvar takes control of the limited stage space afforded in the second stage black box theater. He paints pictures within the frame of the small proscenium. They are telling. They are beautiful and grotesque, often at the same moment. He has placed a stamp on the simplest of the script’s stage directions that completes a thought only partially expressed by the author. Essentially he has co-created the play, adding nothing that detracts from the intent of the author but merely emphasizing what the playwright intended to seen and appreciated. Directing is a triumphant direction for this man.
As Simon, the older black man who has taken up residence in the remains of his former master’s mansion, Clarke Peters gives a dynamic and enriching performance. He is, frankly, not old enough for the role, but his joyous expressions and his actor’s "old" gait work gloriously together to form the man for us. He is experience personified. He is selflessness and he is the center of a fire that has burned low for far too long.
His counterpart in the slave world, John, is played with majesty and control by LeRoy McClain. Here is the emotional volcano bubbling beneath the surface, the tragic music box of a French street performer squeezed interminably until his music becomes a single shrieked tone. McClain has the confidence to take his character to a physical extreme at times and he plays the part with an almost pathological sense of control.
The soldier is played by Nick Westrate. Pain has never been so vividly portrayed on a local stage. If director Innvar has given this to the actor then more power to him. If he has not, but if rather the actor has found the various levels of torture then here is an actor to reckon with in the future. Caleb, the soldier, is the natural inheritor of this place, and he handles that with all of the aristocratic southern panache we would expect. He is also a generous loser but one with a dignity that demands reparation and respect. A very complex role played with nuance and perception.
Sandra Goldmark’s set is a perfect joy of a mess, the aftermath of a battle in 1863. Kristina Lucka has provided ideal costumes, although a few of John’s outfits speak more to the age of Moliere than to Jefferson Davis. Scott Pinkney’s lighting is dark, moody and just about right for this play.
In short, this offering at Barrington’s "off-Broadway" space is perfectly sized and overwhelming at the same time. It is an emotional ride through mixed metaphors and mixed marriages that enlightens with new historic information while entertaining with solid work on every level. This sets the barre high for the 2010 season.
LeRoy McClain; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Whipping Man plays at Barrington Stage Company’s Stage 2 at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA. Tickets come in a variety of prices, so check with the box office at 413-236-8888.