THEATRE REVIEW: ‘The Whipping Man’ at Oldcastle Theatre Company is fast-moving, emotionalMore Info
The Whipping Man
By Matthew Lopez
Directed by Eric Peterson
“I have given up praying; I have given up believing … “
Caleb, a Confederate soldier, staggers into his family home in Richmond, Virginia, late one night in April 1865 to find the place almost deserted, in catastrophic shape and unwelcoming. As his house is in ruins, so is his life. He has been shot in the leg, his horse has literally died on the doorstep, his family is dispersed and the woman he loved has disappeared, still carrying his child. Within minutes of his arrival, he discovers a former slave, Simon, living in the mansion, and Simon sets about doing his work for the old masters, setting things aright. This is an unusual situation to begin with, but it is complicated by the fact that the family is Jewish and their slaves have been raised in the Jewish faith. To make matters more difficult, it is two days before the beginning of Passover and Simon wants to hold a seder, the ceremonial service and meal, for himself and for Caleb.
Life becomes more complicated when John, another former slave and Caleb’s childhood playmate, returns to the home. The former closeness that existed between John and Caleb is gone with the winds of war and, with his injuries getting the better of him, John finds himself holding all the cards and playing a winning hand.
This is the third production I have seen of this play in the last eight years, and it is a play that only becomes richer with time and rehearing it. This time around, Oldcastle Theatre Company in Bennington, Vermont, is putting the play on its feet, and terrific feet they are, too. Herb Parker plays Simon, Brandon Rubin plays John and Justin Pietropaolo plays Caleb under the direction of Eric Peterson on a wonderful set designed by Carl Sprague.
The play is primarily set in real time, with one flashback scene at the top of the second act wherein Caleb recites the text of a love letter he has written to Sarah. While it is meant to be both fact-revealing and actually moving, its real purpose seems to be to prolong the play, for some of the letter is revealed again in the following scene and it disturbs the reality of a severely wounded man for whom the remedy has been worse than the cause by presenting him whole, healthy and standing up, which is not something Caleb does throughout the rest of the play.
Brandon Rubin as John is a commanding figure on the Oldcastle stage. First seen as a masked intruder through a window and finally seen as a man of unanticipated compassion, his journey is wonderfully undertaken by Rubin. His monologue about the Whipping Man is a riveting experience, one that causes suffering to all who hear him.
Herb Parker is magnificent as Simon, particularly in the final scene of the play where he first conducts the Passover seder and then reveals long-held secrets as a retaliatory act against the two men he has cherished.
Justin Pietropaolo is heart-rending as Caleb. From his first appearance to his last moments with John, Pietropaolo never takes a false step or loses a moment of compassion, remorse, horror and a sense of re-evaluating his entire life, an ongoing process for Caleb throughout the play.
Director Eric Peterson has given constant motion to a play about a man who cannot move much at all and, in doing so, has kept attention neatly focused on the man in the bed. Peterson’s hand is clearly seen in the movement of his characters, both emotional and physical motion going in dozens of directions simultaneously, which is just what the playwright seems to want in this piece. Covering three days and nights, the play needs to keep its audience off-balance and Peterson and his actors do that without artifice and it makes a lot of sense.
He is aided and abetted by the wonderful design team of Sprague; David V. Groupe’s lighting; Cory Wheat’s sound design (the show is surrounded by rain); and Ursula McCarty’s wonderful costumes, which are perfect for the characters that don them.
This is an emotional experience wrapped up in faith—religious and human—and history. Simon delivers a fascinating monologue about Abraham Lincoln. Caleb has his letter and his love to express his woe. John’s entire nature is avaricious and self-serving. Each man, in his turn, delivers a major audience-grabber in this play. It is the perfect ensemble piece and, on the Oldcastle stage, it is a true winner.
The Whipping Man plays at Oldcastle Theatre, 331 Main St., Bennington, Vermont, through Sunday, July 22. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go online to oldcastletheatre.org or call the box office at (802) 447-0564.