Saturday, November 10, 2012

Powerful, enlightening THE WHIPPING MAN shines at Cleveland Play House

Even before it opened, due to strong ticket demand, the Cleveland Play House announced a week’s extension for the run of Matthew Lopez’s THE WHIPPING MAN.  The theatre’s foresight was as insightful as the play.

Every once in a while an audience is exposed to a perfect production.  It requires a well written and purposeful script, a strong message, a director who clearly understands the playwright and his/her purpose in penning the work, and a cast who live, rather than act, their roles.  THE WHIPPING MAN is such an experience.

On the surface, THE WHIPPING MAN is a tale set at the close of the Civil War in which Caleb DeLeon, a Confederate soldier returns to his Richmond, Virginia, palatial home, now a charred wreckage, to find his family missing and two former slaves, Simon and John, still there in spite of the their now being free men.  Caleb is badly wounded.  The former slaves take care of him.  As the story unfolds, an examination of friendship, faith and the meaning of freedom are revealed as there is a probing of the question asked each year during the Passover Seder, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Caleb, bitter, disillusioned and haunted by secrets has turned from his religious teachings.  Simon is an elderly negro man.  He is waiting for the DeLeons, who left with Simon’s wife and daughter, to return from hiding and collect the money he was promised by Mr. DeLeon.  Money that will allow him to buy some property and build a small house and live as a free man.  John, a young man about Caleb’s age, frustrated and bursting with dreams, he wants to flee to New York. 

Little known to many was that there were about 50,000 Jews in the South on the eve of the Civil War.  Though only a tiny number owned plantations, those who could afford it owned house slaves, much in the manner of their non-Jewish neighbors.   In THE WHIPPING MAN, the DeLeon family was one of those slave owners.  They, as revealed in the plot exposition, brought up their slave family in the ways of Judaism, complete with holiday celebrations and Jewish dietary laws.

In an interview, Matthew Lopez, a self-described “foxhole Episcopalian” from the Florida panhandle, the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Polish-Russian mother, was asked how he came to write a play about a Jewish Confederate solider and two former slaves celebrating Passover together.   His responses centered on his parent’s interest in the civil war, his being bullied as a gay teenager who felt discrimination, and his constant self-probing for who he was and what he’d do next.  

He also was drawn to the subject after viewing the movie, GLORY, about a regiment of black troops during the Civil War, which raised the question of how someone who was a slave all his life, would act when he became suddenly free.  “How do you make that psychological change?”  As one of the play’s character asks, “What do I do now?”  He saw a parallel to the Jews leaving Egypt and later being freed from the concentration camps following the Holocaust.

While reading an autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Lopez fumbled on a reference to the fact that in 1865, the Passover observance began the day after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  Thus, the time setting of the play, which parallels the time of the Exodus from Egypt and the freedom of the slaves in the United States.

CPH’s THE WHIPPING MAN is a finely conceived production under the expert direction of Giovanna Sardelli.  It is well paced, clearly focused, and expertly supported by the sound, light and setting dimensions.  Era correct costumes and props further enhance.  But, the highlight of the show are the razor honed performances.

Shawn Fagan, as Caleb, who spends most of the play lying down due to a battle induced injury, conveys anguish and frustration with his voice and flashing eyes.  Pain and angst blast from him.  This is a man tortured by several secrets that eat away at his very being and are revealed in several breath-gasping scenes.

Russell G. Jones is gripping as the elderly Simon.  Spouting forth Jewish Biblical pronouncements, Jones clearly creates a man who understands himself, his purpose and his loyalties to his family and former owners.  The closing scene, when he literally and figuratively strips himself, is compelling.

Avery Glymph doesn’t portray the emotionally wound-up John, he is John.  John of panther quickness and determination.  John who was sent to the whipping man for his constant outbursts, but, as later revealed, for being someone who he shouldn’t have been.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: THE WHIPPING MAN is one of the finest theatrical productions of this theatre season.  It is required viewing by anyone who wants to experience theater at its finest.  This is one show that deserved a standing ovation.  Wow!

THE WHIPPING MAN runs December 2 through  at the Allen Theatre.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to