Friday, September 30, 2016

THE WHIPPING MAN mesmerizes at none too fragile

THE WHIPPING MAN, which is now on stage at none too fragile theatre, 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 rebellious young man about Caleb’s age, frustrated and bursting with dreams, 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 house-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, the author the play which won the Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards, 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 parents 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 characters 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.  So, the basis for a well-crafted play was set.

The none too fragile production, under the adept direction of Sean Derry, is gripping.  It never ceases to be a wonderment that this small theatre, tucked into what must have been a storeroom at the back of Pub Bricco in Akron, can continuously produce such quality work.  In its short existence, ntf has won numerous local theatre critic’s awards, often being recognized over Playhouse Square theatres with massive budgets.  ntf does for pennies what the others do for many thousands. 

Derry has conceived a staging that is in your face compelling.  Sitting no more than fifteen feet away from the action, the audience is swept into the tale.  At intermission many remained in their seats, still feeling the effect of the words and actions.

The cast is universally excellent.  David LeMoyne (Simon), Benjamin Gregorio (Caleb DeLeon) and Brian Kenneth  Armour (John) each crafts a clear, muli-texture character.  Their performances are exquisitely textured, creating real people, with real problems.  They lead the audience clearly toward the surprising  conclusion, by revealing heartbreaking secret after secret with precision.

The ending of the show was met with dead silence…a tribute the emotional tenseness of the conclusion.  What a tribute to the cast and director!  The silence was followed, during the curtain call, by appropriate excessive applause.

Kevin Ozan’s lighting design and Brian Kenneth Armour’s sound design help intensify the action.

Capsule judgement:  When THE WHIPPING MAN ran at the Cleveland Play House several seasons ago, I said it was “required viewing by anyone who wants to experience theater at its finest.”  If you missed that production, or you want revisit the script in similar spellbinding splendor, rush to none too fragile.  This production is as mesmerizing as was the other local staging.  Applause, applause!

For tickets to “The Whipping Man” which runs through October  8, 2016  at none too fragile theater in Akron, call 330-671-4563 or go to

none too fragile closes out its 1916 season with Sharr White’s ANNAPURNA from November 4-19.  The theatre has announced its ambitious 2017 season.  Check its website for information about the plays and how to obtain season tickets.