By Matthew Lopez. Directed by Anthony F. Ingram. A Pacific Theatre production. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, February 27. Continues until March 21
There’s nothing quite like an on-stage amputation to get your attention.
In Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, a Confederate officer named Caleb barely makes it home to Richmond, Virginia, in the aftermath of the American Civil War. He’s been shot in the leg and gangrene has set in. Caleb’s parents have fled, and Simon, a former slave, has become the interim custodian of the mansion, which was once grand but is now ransacked. Simon, who is older and has some medical experience, orders an amputation, and John, another emancipated slave who was once a member of the household, shows up to help. Fortunately, John has looted several bottles of whisky. Simon already has a saw.
The Whipping Man is an old-fashioned play in that a series of dramatic revelations drives it. This is not a bad thing. (What better place than the theatre, which is so clearly artificial, to explore constructed realities and what lies beneath them?) And in the topsy-turvy world of postwar America, the context is rich. Although he once had wealth, Caleb’s money is now next to worthless. Big-talking John seems strangely unable to act on his dreams. And when Simon says that John and Caleb were fast friends as children, John replies, “It wasn’t a friendship, Simon. Not when one friend owns the other.”
Carl Kennedy, who plays John, is one of the most mercurial and charismatic actors you’re ever going to see. His portrait brims with playfulness, intelligence, wit—and emotional depth.
I’ve never seen Tom Pickett look better: he’s having a great time and he delivers nuanced and heartfelt work as Simon. In some ways, Caleb may be the most difficult role: after the surgery, Caleb barely moves, and he’s the former slave owner in a play about race in America. Still, Giovanni Mocibob offers an intriguing combination of innocence and guilt, good intentions and privileged blindness.
So there are lots of successes in The Whipping Man. There are also big gaps. The play itself goes surprisingly slack at times: a couple of scenes that involve eating are particularly long and dull. And more than once, the script slides into a sentimentality that undermines its potential. For instance, Simon, who hopes to receive the money that Caleb’s father promised him, says that he wants to buy a house. Then he adds, “I think I might like to own a chair if there’s any money left over.” The chair bit is pure goo.
Still, there’s an interesting overlay: Caleb’s father has converted his slaves to Judaism, the family’s religion. The play takes place during Passover and the script’s references to the Jewish leader Abraham, Abraham Lincoln, and the enslavement and emancipation of Jews and Africans are resonant.
With the help of Drew Facey’s elegantly destroyed set and Lauchlin Johnston’s evocative lighting, Anthony F. Ingram’s production conjures a startling period. One of the most memorable images: a description of white southerners celebrating Lincoln’s assassination.