The least expected aspect of The Whipping Man, a searing drama about slavery, war, poverty, racism, torture, gangrene, and unanesthetized amputation is that it's frequently hilarious. For a one-set, two-act, three-actor play, it's a rich, complex thing, with a parade of surprises.
The Civil War has been oversimplified so much—usually depicted with paper-doll characters across the political spectrum—that it's hard to find a fresh and honest perspective on it. One way is to present a Confederate officer and two former slaves, and make all three Jewish.
The play's only scene is a ruined, stripped Richmond-area mansion, tended by an able ex-slave named Simon. Simon is played with authoritarian gravitas by Daver Morrison, the only newcomer in the cast, who nonetheless seems familiar. (Is it his multiple soap-opera credits?) A young wounded Confederate officer staggers home days after Appomattox. Caleb, played by MFA student Steve Sherman, is reluctant to go to the military hospital, so Simon, a commanding presence with some practical medical knowledge, takes matters into his own hands. Then, at first mysteriously, John shows up. He's the play's Artful Dodger, a charismatic scavenger played with carefree élan by recent Clarence Brown regular Tramell Tillman.
There are others in the household, all missing, but very much part of the conversation—and the plot.
As it turns out, each of the three characters has secrets the others haven't guessed, and the final scene is a series of revelations, each of which pulls a bit more rug out from under our assumptions.
Underlying the drama, as unlikely as it may seem, given our preconceptions of both Confederate officers and slaves, is their shared Judaism. The odd trio's attempt to celebrate seder, the Jewish ceremony of the Passover, under extreme conditions (in fact, on the day of Lincoln's death) is vivid. Their wartime substitutions, of soldier's hardtack for matzo and collards for bitter herbs, almost suggests an inspiration for a new religion. (Note to prop folks: Why not use real hardtack, or something like it—like, perhaps, real matzo?) The scene seems surreal only until they tie it all together with the old black spiritual "Let My People Go."
The play's title offers a bit of a puzzle. "The whipping man," the local professional sadist who handled slave whipping for the masters, is referred to repeatedly but is not a character. He left scars on the psyches of all three, but is he really the play's subject?
It's a newish play, by young playwright Matthew Lopez. Though first premiered in 2006, it was an off-Broadway hit in 2010, and won some big awards. Directed by the University of Tennessee's John Sipes, this production could hardly be better.
I have nothing to complain about, but since I have a bit of space left, one character seems unfinished. Immobile Caleb can't compare to the strikingly different but equally robust portrayals of both the freshly freed slaves. Maybe that was deliberate, and an accurate portrayal of the prostrate white South in 1865. Actor Sherman, whose experience is hardly covered by the aforementioned phrase "MFA student"—he's a veteran of the Blue Man Group in New York and a national award–winning playwright himself—plays the young master, who seems emotionally shallow, but with sudden bursts of fear, confusion, defiance, doubt, and drowsiness. As he lies on his battered couch, most often with a sort of appalled expression that wouldn't be out of place in a '50s sci-fi horror epic—a response to a giant scorpion from outer space, maybe—it's hard to figure what he really makes of things, how he's coping with the destruction of his home, with the reality of emancipation, with his own sudden disability.
The role's a challenge. Never mind how quickly the young master could adapt to his own wartime loss of faith, to treating his former slaves as equals—would any real human even be sensible enough to suggest reflection, confession, or character development in the 48 hours after an amputation with whiskey his only anesthesia? Even if the fresh stump somehow didn't hurt so much, wouldn't he be either drunk or hungover, and probably both? Maybe I'm laboring under a stereotype here, but I'm not sure anyone in that shape could do anything but groan.
It was, as far as I can tell, the script's only flaw. It was otherwise the most realistic evocation of the era I've ever seen on stage.
More than some other productions, this play points out the prevailing urgency of live drama over cinema. You start thinking American audiences are unshockable. But several times, at the Carousel, arranged for this production in an intimate semicircle, I heard gasps, as if audience members believed, if only for a second, that what they were witnessing was real, and now.
It's funny that I've heard, from several quarters, word of theater regulars who just aren't sure they're up to seeing this one, as if it's likely to be uncomfortable or something. But it's so perfectly presented that I suspect a large majority of each audience wouldn't mind seeing it again the next night.