The Whipping Man
Play by Mathew Lopez
Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center
Feb 7-22, 2014
In the Cardinal Stage Company’s production of Mathew Lopez’s The Whipping Man at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center there are no whips and there is no whipping, but whipping did happen and who got whipped and who got to whip is a key part of the lives of the three characters in this drama.
Although playwright Lopez describes himself as a gay “foxhole Episcopalian” from the Florida Panhandle, he came from a family of Civil War buffs. Reading two of their books he discovered that Passover began the evening of the day after Lee surrendered and four nights before Lincoln was assassinated. He’s described this as a “Eureka Moment.” It’s from this moment that The Whipping Man, his play of a family’s white son and two of its former slaves celebrating Passover came.
The play begins dramatically. As frighteningly realistic stereophonic thunder crashes, lightning flashes and the sound of pouring rain fills the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center’s Theater, the lights come up on Brandon Wentz as Caleb a wounded Confederate soldier who crawls onto the stage set of a ruined and ransacked home. Wentz makes the painful crawl a moving moment. It becomes even more dramatic and quite mysterious when Alfred Wilson, as Simon an older African American, greets him in Hebrew, with a prayer praising God for returning the dead to life.
Although Simon welcomes his former master he cautions him that with the defeat of the south he should be “asking” instead of “telling.” Wardell Julius Clark as the attractively feisty younger former slave John is even more assertive as he says, “you lost and we won.” Playwright Lopez’s creation of a household that included its slaves in its Judaism as the old south reeled in defeat is full of dramatic possibilities. Things come to a head in ironies as the three celebrate Passover, the celebration of the Jews escape from slavery in Egypt. Questions of family, of inclusion and exclusion arise.
The tautly played production with fine and rich performances by all three actors is directed by Cardinal’s Randy White. The memorable set is by Mark Frederic Smith. Dramatic sound design is by Mike Price. Costumes are by Ellen Mackay.
As the play develops abstractions from the past crash down into the realities of the present and spread to their consequences for the future with surprising, insightful and even frightening possibilities.
Performances of Mathew Lopez’s the Whipping Man produced by the Cardinal Stage Company in association with the Jewish Theatre of Bloomington continue at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center through February 22.
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker.