The Whipping Man, by Matthew Lopez. Directed by Eric Peterson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Justin Pietropaolo, Herb Parker; photo: Erika Floriani
"I have given up praying; I have given up believing. . ."
Justin Pietropaolo; photo: Erika Floriani
Caleb, a Confederate soldier, staggers into his family home in Richmond, Virginia late one night in April, 1865 to find the place almost deserted, in catastrophic shape, and unwelcoming. As his house is in ruins, so is his life. He has been shot in the leg, his horse has literally died on the doorstep, his famly is dispersed and the woman he loved has disappeared, still carrying his child. Within minutes of his arrival he discovers a former slave, Simon, living in the mansion, and Simon sets about doing his work for the old masters setting things aright. This is an unusual situation to begin with, but it is complicated by the fact that the family are Jewish and their slaves have been raised in the Jewish faith. To make matters more difficult it is two days before the beginning of Passover and Simon wants to hold a seder, the ceremonial service and meal, for himself and for Caleb.
Life becomes more complicated when John, another former slave and Caleb's childhood playmate, returns to the home.The former closesness that existed by John and Caleb is gone with the winds of war and, with his injuries getting the better of him, John finds himself holding all the cards and playing a winning hand.
This is the third production I have seen of this play in the last eight years and it is a play that only becomes richer with time and rehearing it. This time around Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, Vermont is putting the play on its feet, and terrific feet they are, too. Herb Parker plays Simon, Brandon Rubin plays John and Justin Pietropaolo plays Caleb under the direction of Eric Peterson on a wonderful set designed by Carl Sprague.
The play is primarily set in real time, with one flashback scene at the top of the second act wherein Caleb recites the text of a love letter he has written to Sarah. While it is meant to be both fact revealing and actually moving, it's real purpose seems to be to prolong the play for some of the letter is revealed again in the following scene and it disturbs the reality of a severly wounded man for whom the remedy has been worse than the cause by presenting him whole, healthy and standing up which is not something Caleb does throughout the rest of the play.
Brandon Rubin as "Nigger" John is a commanding figure on the Oldcastle stage. First seen as a masked intruder through a window and finally seen as a man of unanticipated compassion his journey is wonderfully undertaken by Rubin. His monologue about the Whipping Mas is a riveting experience, one that causes suffering to all who hear him.
Herb Parker is magnificent as Simon, particularly in the final scene of the play where he first conducts the Passover Seder, then reveals long-held secrets as a retaliatory act against the two men he has cherished.
Justin Pietropaolo is heart-rending as Caleb. From his first appearance to his last moments with John, Pietropaolo never takes a false step or loses a moment of compassion, remorse, horror and a sense of reevaluating his entire life, an ongoing process for Caleb throughout the play.
Director Eric Peterson has given constant motion to a play about a man who cannot move much at all and in doing so has kept attention neatly focused on the man in the bed. Peterson's hand is clearly seen in the movement of his characters, both emotional and physical motion going in dozens of directions simultaneously, which is just what the playwright seems to want in this piece. Covering three days and nights, the play needs to keep its audience off-balance and Peterson and his actors do that without artifice and it makes a lot of sense.
He is aided and abetted by the wonderful design team of Sprague, David V. Groupe's lighting, Cory Wheat's sound design (the show is surrounded by rain) and Ursula McCarty's wonderful costumes, perfect for the characters that don them.
This is an emotional experience wrapped up in faith - religious and human - and history. Simon delivers a fascinating monologue about Abraham Lincoln. Caleb has his letter and his love to express his woe. John's entire nature is avaricious and self-serving. Each man, in his turn, delivers a major audience grabber in this play. It is the perfect ensemble piece and on the Oldcastle stage it is a true winner.
The Whipping Man plays at Oldcastle Theatre, 331 Main Street, Bennington, VT through July 22. For information and tickets go on line to oldcastletheatre.org or call the box office at 802-447-0564.