It’s April, 1865. Confederate States Army General Robert E. Lee has surrendered at Appomattox. The Civil War has ended, and in a few days United States President Abraham Lincoln will be assassinated. All that is background for Matthew Lopez’s gripping and highly emotional play “The Whipping Man,” set in the South.
But it is the observance and the meaning of Passover that not only affects but also reflects the way the play’s three characters — three Jewish men: two of whom are African-American former slaves raised as Jews — will come to terms with it. They will concede to observe the holiday with as much reverence as the difficult, also defiant, conditions will permit.
Badly wounded Confederate soldier Caleb (Adam Gerber) has returned to his wealthy family’s burned and nearly destroyed home in Richmond, Virginia. With his family having gone for a safe haven among relations in another state, 20-something Caleb is stunned by the presence of two of the family’s household slaves — the 50-year-old loyal and philosophical Simon (Ron Canada) and the rebellious and antagonistic John (Luke Forbes),much closer to Caleb’s age, who have stayed on foraging for survival while also awaiting money promised them by their master.
While Simon has motivated John to take part in the Seder services that he will oversee, even though a kosher or traditional dinner is not even remotely possible, Caleb’s faith has been sorely tested by the horrors he has seen. But his biggest test could be his being able to grasp the reality of a new nation that promises freedom for all. It is a drastic change for Caleb who finds it difficult relating as he once had to the still devoted Simon and the more contentious John, who as former house-slaves now find themselves unsure of their future. Apparently it was not unheard of for the wealthy Jews of the South to instruct their household slaves in the Jewish practices and traditions.
While John is in hiding for reasons I won’t disclose, Simon has spent his time helping with the wounded at the local hospital. As soon as he sees Caleb’s gangrene-infected foot, he knows it has to be amputated immediately. And this is done by Simon with John assisting in one of the play’s most harrowing scenes.
Not conflicted in the least by their being raised as observant Jews, including knowledge of the Torah and the scriptures, Simon and John are mainly, however, slowly coming to terms with some painful familial and personal issues. With plenty of time on their hands and keeping themselves in hiding, except for the John’s unremorseful forays to loot the abandoned homes of neighbors, the men begin to feed their repressed feeling as all sorts of family secrets and past indiscretions come to the fore.
A new perspective is awakened in Caleb as he considers his future. For the time being he is dependent upon the goodwill of Simon and John. Yet at the same time his past history and his relationship with them becomes increasingly incriminating.
The playwright craftily builds the tension as the unsettling talks become increasingly incendiary. There are revelations startling enough to potentially sever their relationship. That includes John’s vivid recollections of life under the old master-slave conditions and of living his youth, as the title of the play disturbingly infers.
Actor Forbes is terrific and at times terrifying as the tough-skinned but very intelligent, literate, and self educated John. And it is more than the impressive resonance of Canada’s voice that makes his commanding performance as Simon memorable. Meanwhile Gerber brings to the surface all of Caleb’s physical pain and emotional anguish.
Lopez’s interesting and intriguing plot device to consider the presence of well-to-do, property and slave-owning Jews as an historical reality in antebellum Richmond adds a rich subtext to this unorthodox (no pun-intended) drama. It has been expertly and sensitively directed by Seret Scott, who previously directed a fine revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” for the George Street Playhouse. The dramatics, mostly confined to talk, and perhaps just a little too much exposition, are, however, punctuated with some fist-clenching and mind-bending moments, all leading significantly to the climactic Seder.
It is also fascinating for us to contemplate the implications within a play about Jews at Passover, an event that celebrates the time of their freedom from slavery in the land of Egypt. That Jews would find themselves slave-holders centuries later adds a sadly ironic note to the drama. Flecked with humorous moments and just as many fired by lingering and unresolved rage, “The Whipping Man” casts an almost haunting spell, a quality that is apparent in Jason Simms’ crumbling setting and Burke Brown’s moody lighting.
This is first production of “The Whipping Man” that I have seen since the play opened in New York at the Manhattan Theater Club in 2011 and following a number of regional theater productions that included its premiere at Luna Stage in Montclair. After earning widespread critical approval, “The Whipping Man” won the coveted John Gassner Award from the Outer Critics Circle, awarded for an outstanding play written by a young American playwright. It continues to be produced with great success across the country and elsewhere. However, I can’t imagine a finer one than the one now at the George Street Playhouse.
The Whipping Man, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, February 15. $25 to $64. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.