Shattering secrets, lies and intrigue are set against the backdrop of a tumultuous turning point in American history in the stellar drama The Whipping Man at Cleveland Play House’s Second Stage.
This Civil War story is set in April 1865 at the ruins of the DeLeon home in Richmond, Va., as the war is coming to a close. Caleb DeLeon, an injured young Jewish confederate soldier, comes home to find his parents’ house half destroyed and his family fled. Only newly freed slave Simon remains to guard the home and wait for the elder DeLeon, his former master, as well as his wife and daughter to return.
The DeLeons’ slaves have been raised by their masters in the Jewish faith, to which they are devout. The play is set during Passover, the ancient observance of the Jews’ delivery from slavery in Egypt that serves as an allegory for the newly freed American slaves. This shared faith is the strongest thing binding the three men together.
Playwright Matthew Lopez presents arresting twists on the “family” ties that bind, stemming from complicated dynamics between masters and slaves that have developed through the generations.
Lopez, who is neither Jewish nor African-American, was intrigued when he learned that Passover began the day after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered, ending the Civil War. Lopez, an Episcopalian of Puerto Rican descent from the Florida panhandle, became intrigued by the history of Southern Jews corrupted by slavery.
The Whipping Man premiered in 2006 in Montclair, N.J., and made its New York premiere last year Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it had a sold-out, extended run and won an Outer Critics Circle award. The current Cleveland Play House production also has been extended.
In Cleveland, director Giovanna Sardelli directs a tight trio led by Russell Jones, a Shaker Heights native, as the former slave Simon, the voice of reason; Shawn Fagan as the wounded Caleb; and Avery Glymph as the embittered former slave John.
Jones’ Simon is noble and faithful, leading a Passover Seder with whatever scraps the men can find in the house. The Seder occurs as a sort of improvised picnic, with pillows and candles on the floor.
Eerie near darkness is created by lighting designer Japhy Weideman, with a backdrop of incessant rain created by real showers beyond the crumbled facade of the DeLeon home with its blown-out windows.
Fagan paints a man of desperation the minute he stumbles into the DeLeon home, amid thunder and lightning. Caleb and John have their respective reasons for hiding out in the rubble of the abandoned, war-ravaged DeLeon home but all three men are desperate to survive.
Fagan’s broken Caleb has endured the hell of the trenches outside Petersburg, where he believes God abandoned him in battle.
Glymph’s taunting John is a young man full of bottled-up nervous energy and bitterness. He has collected a pile of booty from the neighbors’ deserted houses, and as the play progresses, the stolen clothing he wears becomes more and more gentrified.
In this story with themes of suffering and freedom, a son repeats the sins of the father. The play’s language and content is not recommended for anyone under age 12.
Brutal imagery includes details of blood splattering the walls on the whipping man’s shack, where young John was sent for punishment when he forgot his place. Lopez’s intense drama also portrays an explicit enactment of a rough at-home surgery.
As a final revelation unfolds, this intense tale ends in several moments of incredible silence, where so much is said through the characters’ shocked facial expressions and body language.
As one character sets out on an epic quest, we believe he will search to the ends of the earth for what he must find. Lopez’s stunning play also offers hope that the remaining characters may overcome the pain of their intertwined past.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.