Written by Scott Keister
At the time of the Civil War there were approximately 25,000 Jews living in the eleven states that seceded from the union. Many of these were slave owners, and several thousand actually fought on the side of the Confederacy. In this play, The Whipping Man, currently running at South Coast Rep, playwright Matthew Lopez explores the irony of how a race of people, the Jews, who struggled mightily to escape slavery, became a people who themselves owned and sold slaves. He digs the irony a little deeper by making two of his characters in the play black slaves who also follow the Jewish faith. The parallels of the Jews and the black slaves are layered on pretty deeply in what is occasionally an intriguing clash of characters—two former black slaves and a white man, all from the same household in Richmond, Virginia, gathered together in the final days of the Civil War—but is too often a mere polemic that goes nowhere.
Caleb (Adam Haas Hunter) has, without warning, returned from the war to his family home. He is grievously wounded, but not as much as the mansion itself—war-torn, burned-out and ravaged by looters. He encounters two of the house’s former slaves, now freed, Simon (Charlie Robinson) and John (Jarrod M. Smith). Simon is an older man, the head of the household who is safeguarding the home while Caleb’s father, is away, having been evacuated with the rest of the town. John, a young man more Caleb’s age, spends his day looting the neighbors’ houses. Much of act one consists of long stretches of exposition that drag on too long, bringing the play to a standstill. The better half of act two is made up of an impromptu seder conducted by Simon that also goes on way too long. Lots of talk about Jewish history that does nothing to move the plot along. Finally, there are a number of dark revelations that quite suddenly change everything for the three men before the play abruptly ends.
The main set, designed by Tom Buderwitz, is worth the price of admission. It is a glorious and beautiful wreck of a mansion, with eerie atmospheric lighting by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz. If only the performances of the three actors matched the drama and authenticity of the set. Too often, I got the sense of three actors just playing emotions on a stage instead of three genuine broken men, desperately trying to survive a harrowing situation in the face of life-changing truths they are ill-equipped to cope with. Jarrod M. Smith has the best moments, the most energy and the bulk of the laughs. For most of the play there is a lot of casual banter that, though entertaining, doesn’t add up to much, so that by the time the final revelations burst out they don’t hit with the hammer blows of emotional force that they should.
As directed by SCR co-founder Martin Benson, too much of this production exists in a static state, with men simply chatting on stage where there is no dramatic tension and no real story unfolding. Lopez makes his points, linking the Jews and black slaves, but that by itself does not make a play. There are some strong moments in this very professional-looking production, but by the end I was not moved to care much about the characters one way or the other.
South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa
January 4th -25th