Meredith McDonough makes her directorial debut in her new role as associate artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville with a powerful production of Matthew Lopez’s heartbreaking Civil War drama “The Whipping Man.” Set against the backdrop of the days between General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, “The Whipping Man” is the riveting emotional story of three men on the edge of their old lives, unable to move on for their own painful reasons.
“The Whipping Man” opened Thursday and runs through February 2 in the Bingham Theatre.
Jewish Confederate soldier Caleb (Frankie J. Alvarez) arrives badly wounded in the dead of night to his family’s home in Richmond and is reunited with Simon (Michael Genet) and John (Biko Eisen-Martin), two of his family’s former slaves who are the only members of the household remaining. There are three mysteries at play in this home: how Caleb came home, why John stays and when Simon’s daughter and wife, who left with Caleb’s father, will return. Over the course of the play, the answers (plus a host of long-kept secrets and incriminations) are revealed, as Lopez uses the very specific story of a distinct minority (Jewish Confederates and their Jewish slaves) to confront larger truths about the atrocities of America’s past while they are still raw.
An effective director can blend sensitivity and power without showing the seams, and McDonough pulls commendable and graceful performances out of all three actors, pushing some scenes right to the edge of horror while allowing the script’s moments of humor and delicate melancholy to sing. Though according to Simon, Caleb’s family treated their slaves “better than most,” that’s met with a rejoining “not good enough” from John, a truth that couldn’t be aired until emancipation put all three men on equal ground. The actors have to balance the inherently brutal reality of slavery and war with the dramatic revelations of family secrets and desires, and the men take turns confessing to each other, the power in the room shifting from man to man as they share and keep vital information from each other.
Eisen-Martin delivers one compelling explosion after another as John, the highly intelligent and righteously angry young man who was raised alongside (but always subservient to) Caleb. While Simon guards the house against looters, John takes advantage of Richmond’s evacuation and general anarchy by “liberating” goods from abandoned wealthy homes, telling an admonishing Simon, “You survive your way, I’ll survive mine.”
Simon is old enough to be Caleb’s father, and Genet skillfully demonstrates how Simon, accustomed to performing for Caleb with an oversized good humor and non-threatening, homespun wisdom, catches himself falling into the old patterns of soothing and protecting Caleb even though that is no longer his responsibility or Caleb’s right to demand–and yet, right back into the aw-shucks! performance he slips, until he can no longer choose to bear the weight. At times his performance felt a bit too big for my seats in the second row of the Bingham Theatre, where the stage never felt so close and immediate, but it might read differently to the back row.
Alvarez has the unenviable task of spending most of the play in a stationary position due to his wounded leg, and he delivers a nuanced and empathetic performance as the man who has witnessed his own atrocities but must come to terms with the role he plays in the oppression of the people he also thinks of as family.
In addition to the war’s end, it is also Passover, the eight-day religious observance commemorating the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt, and Simon is determined to observe the holiday despite protests from Caleb and John. Lopez’s relentlessly intelligent and empathetic script raises theological questions of God’s role in war and slavery, how a people who were once enslaved could engage in the horrible practice themselves and how John and Simon could be slaves and Jews at once. John can’t reconcile the paradox, and when he demands Simon explain how he kept his faith, Simon admits, “I can’t square it. That’s why I keep asking.” During the Seder, Simon dutifully leads the younger men in Hebrew prayers and the Haggadah, the recitation of the story of Exodus, but it’s when he breaks out in song — the spiritual “Go Down Moses” — that his expression of faith finds its own voice.
The talent of the design team is evident from the top of the show, with the perfectly crumbled finery of Andrew Boyce’s set. Set inside “a once-grand home,” rubble surrounds the nearly-empty room Caleb arrives in during sound designer Ben Marcum’s and lighting designer Matthew Richards’ ominous overnight storm. Boyce’s set captures the atmosphere of Richmond at the end of the war, destroyed by artillery shelling and fires, with his daring use of the intimate, limited space of the Bingham Theatre. A large pile of rubble and a shattered crystal chandelier blocks one of the voms, leaving only three of four corners open for actors’ exits and entrances. Look up and you’ll see where it came from–the open wound of a gaping hole in what was once a lovely ceiling. Richards adds more lights throughout the play as the men reveal more of their secrets, but the holes in the roof keep a steady, tension-building drip of rainwater thrumming throughout the show, with composer Chris Miller’s original music adding to the melancholy tone. Costume designer Lorraine Venberg’s transformation of John, who arrives in tatters and sports progressively finer duds as he loots the neighborhood, is especially effective.
Following on the heels of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and Tony Speciale’s contemporary production of “Romeo and Juliet,” Lopez’s powerful drama fits well into Les Waters’ first season as artistic director, which is shaping up to be an unflinching, unsentimental exploration of the power of family bond. McDonough, who will next direct Sam Marks’ “The Delling Shore” in the upcoming Humana Festival of New American Plays, is another strong addition to the theater’s artistic leadership, a sign of bold and sensitive things to come.