Review: Whipping Man a Cracking Good Show
By Montague Gammon III
The Virginia Stage Company’s gripping, exquisitely performed and staged production of The Whipping Man, Matthew Lopez’s two act drama set in the war ravaged Richmond town mansion of a war ruined, Jewish, slave owning family, will certainly rank among the particularly memorable theatrical events of this season, and perhaps of several seasons.
This is not to say Lopez’s meticulously and forcefully constructed play is either subtle or really profound. It is, however, profoundly effective, and carefully, determinedly, even sometimes fiercely, intense.
Family scion Caleb, former Confederate soldier, wounded and gangrenous, staggers into the shattered remnants of his old home late on the night of April 13, 1865. The war is over. He finds the aging former slave Simon sole inhabitant of the window shattered, fire damaged and looter-stripped house. His father and the few other slaves are gone, fled to safer lodging farther south, he is told.
Caleb and Simon are soon joined by another of the family’s former slaves, John, Caleb’s contemporary.
Their conversations over 48 or so hours range from the mechanics of survival (a matter blending nursing, surgery, sustenance and subterfuge) to memories of both good and bad – even horrific – times before the war.
Because both the slaves were raised in their owners’ faith, short discussions of belief, and some remarkably moving ritual observances, punctuate the play.
Promotional material for The Whipping Man makes much of “secrets” that are revealed, as such promotional material conventionally does, but those secrets, even the show closing, purportedly big revelation are reasonably predictable, though nonetheless effectively presented.
Lopez has created a singularly well built play, whose precise structure evolves quite naturally from its subject and situation. (More than a few well constructed plays give the impression of being written with a playwriting textbook at the author’s elbow; that is not the case here.) The effect is of a natural flow which, under director Jasson Minadakis’ guidance, is well paced and acted with total believability. (Minandakis is the artistic director of the Marin Theatre Company, in Mill Valley, Calilfornia, with which the VSC is co-producing The Whipping Man.)
L. Peter Callender plays Simon, Nicholas Pelczar is cast as Caleb, and Tobie Windham has the role of John. Each is ideal in themselves, and all interact perfectly in pairs and as an ensemble.
When people say “There’s not a bad seat in the house,” the remark is often a compliment to the set designer or the director, or, as in this show, both.
Kat Conley’s set, Ben Wilhelm’s lighting, Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes, Will McCandless’ sound, Chris Houston’s original music and every element of design and technical production all work together with remarkable, usually unobtrusive unity and coherence.
Caveats are in order: the medically squeamish should consider themselves forewarned by the mention of gangrene and surgery; the verbally squeamish should be aware that John’s nickname includes a taboo racial term. Neither warning should dissuade anyone interested in good theatre from seeing and appreciating The Whipping Man.
The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez
Through March 17
Virginia Stage Company at the Wells Theatre
110 E. Tazewell St.
(Tazewell St. & Monticello Ave.)