Sometimes a play is intended to keep an audience entertained. Sometimes a play is intended to make an audience think. The Whipping Man is intended to do both.
And it does both.
Very. Very. Well.
Caleb (Frankie J. Alvarez) is a young and wounded Confederate soldier returning to his Richmond, Virginia home at the end of the Civil War. But instead of finding his life there intact, he discovers the opposite. His family is gone; his town and his home are in shambles.
And the only people who remain to welcome him back are two men who, up until the most recent of days, were slaves on the family estate.
Simon (Michael Genet) who has been with the family since Caleb’s grandfather was the patriarch, and John (Biko Eisen-Martin) a younger man, who is nearer to Caleb’s age.
In this bleak environment, playwright Matthew Lopez weaves together a complex story of triumph, adversity, secrets, love, and loss.
Lopez pairs scenes of extreme discomfort with poignantly touching moments where the three men, despite generational, class and philosophical differences, come together…almost as a family.
It is in one of those touching moments, as the men are sitting down amid ruins to share in a makeshift Seder to celebrate Passover, that Simon, a man who has kept his composure through countless ordeals, who has turned the other cheek for so long, can control his emotions no longer. His joy, and then his rage, bubble to the surface. Realities are shattered. Beliefs are disavowed.
Directing theatre in the round brings a unique set of challenges, not the least of which is making sure that the entire audience can witness all the critical moments. It is in this staging that the production finds a moment of weakness.
Make no mistake; this is a powerhouse production. The emotion, the vocal energy and the synergy of the cast is palpable.
But for a good portion of the first act, a full quarter of the theatre is cut off from connecting with Caleb, who has been wounded so severely that he cannot walk, and therefore has been confined to a single position onstage.
Director Meredith McDonough has mined a gem in this cast. Genet, Alvarez and Eisen-Martin have developed characters with a multitude of layers; all of whom manage to keep a sense of humor in the midst of a world literally crumbling around them.
And therein lies the creative strength of Lopez’s work. He has created a mix of history, drama and mystery that keep an audience engaged, and perhaps even contemplating some big questions, but he drops in enough well-placed humor to keep them from mental exhaustion.
The Whipping Man is sponsored by Brown-Forman and continues through February 2nd at Actors Theatre. Most tickets start at $30, though some discounts are available. They can be purchased online or by calling the Actors Theatre box office at 502-584-1205.
Image: A.Simons/Actors Theatre