For the average historically and culturally conscious Virginian, and most especially if they are from Richmond, Matthew Lopez’ “The Whipping Man” feels remarkably homespun. It’s not, which is just one of the many things that make this play about a war-ravaged Richmond in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, so impressive. The Florida-reared Lopez, known primarily for his work as a screenwriter for television, had no connection to Virginia when he wrote “The Whipping Man.” He didn’t grow up in Richmond or Norfolk.
Yet the Richmond setting is not simply a script note for this excellent piece of stage literature, it actually provides the play with the brunt of its contextual weight. The Virginia Stage Company production of “The Whipping Man,” in partnership with California’s Marin Theatre Company, is the very first Virginia production of this award-winning work. Seeing it amongst the historic architectural charm of the Wells Theatre in downtown Norfolk provides an eerie sense of living history. And as an audience member during opening night, the two-act play was at times heavy to endure, but felt quite necessary to experience.
It helps that director Jasson Minadakis is a Richmond native. He no longer lives here, as he’s the artistic director of Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, California, but he clearly knows Richmond and respects its cultural ticks. He directs his actors, all three give laudable performances throughout, to speak with the local cadences of that time. The care that Jason and dialect coach Keith Flippen, who is also from Richmond, put into the delivery of dialogue, is admirable and certainly adds to this production’s local impact.
“The Whipping Man” excels as high drama primarily because of its fully rounded characters, a fascinating central storyline, and a plot full of eye-brow raising moments. In the first scene, we see Caleb DeLeon, a Jewish Confederate captain, hobble into his family home in Richmond. He is badly injured and psychologically scarred by the war which has ruined the condition of his once idyllic residence. The DeLeons are a Jewish family living in the ante-bellum south. And yes, they own slaves, though apparently not many.
Soon one of those now former slaves, Simon, who pretty much runs the DeLeon household, is introduced. Simon quickly does what he’s always done, and that’s to take care of Caleb like a son. Of course Simon no longer has to, as Richmond has fallen as the Confederate capital, the Emancipation Proclamation has already passed, and not a single DeLeon is anywhere to be found. So immediately, Simon’s decision to save the life of Caleb, who would otherwise die from the spread of gangrene, is interesting.
John, referred at times throughout the play as Nigger John, immediately sparks the first signs of dramatic tension between the characters. John is young, about Caleb’s age, and has been raised by Simon and his woman, Elizabeth, as part of the DeLeon household. Both Simon and John have been raised as Jews, and they both have clung to their religious faith as a clear statement of their full humanity and intellect, resistant to that day’s racist, propagated views of blacks as being inferior to whites. Indeed, though it was illegal at the time, Simon is not only literate, but impressively articulate and intellectually curious. His embrace of literature and its implications, is a reference point throughout the play.
Soon after Caleb’s return to the DeLeon household, which only Simon and John now occupy, the start of Passover occurs. In spite of extremely limited resources, Simon meticulously puts together a Seder, a feast that celebrates the beginning of Passover. It is during the Seder, which occurs in the second act, that the most provocative secrets of each character come tumbling out. These are largely family secrets that on the surface may appear a bit melodramatic, but within the context of the narrative, make sense. It is also within the powerful second act that a symbolic connection between the fall of American slavery and the Israelites being liberated from slavery in Egypt, is explored, making for some of the strongest scenes between the three characters.
In the hands of Minadakis, no moment of monologue or dialogue between characters, is oversold. His restraint as director allows for highly dramatic moments to develop organically. Scene designer Kat Conley strongly aids the cause through her successful visual imagining of the damaged interior of the DeLeon home. The lighting and sound artistry is top notch and effective as well, thanks to Ben Wilhelm and Will McCandless, respectively.
As Simon, L. Peter Callender fills the role with an assured swagger that allows the character to believably lead not only Caleb and Tobie through their domestic crisis, but also the audience through some epic plot devices. Nicholas Pelczar gives a thoughtful performance as Caleb, though his character has the least presence of the three. That’s just the way it was written. Now John, on the other hand, makes a big impression from his first entrance. And Tobie Windham embodies the confused brashness of the character very well.
It’s their collective performance, however, that makes “The Whipping Man”, a true standard bearer for Virginia Stage Company productions to come.