Hope rises amid the ruins of war in Matthew Lopez' unsubtle 'The Whipping Man'
BENNINGTON, Vt. — Matthew Lopez' well-intentioned, if overrated and not terribly subtle, drama, "The Whipping Man," which is being given a well-intentioned, two-dimensional, at best, production at Oldcastle Theatre Company — is set in the ruins of a once elegant plantation in Richmond, Va. It is April 13, 1865, four days after Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox. Soldiers are returning home and newly freed slaves are taking their first steps as liberated human beings.
The plantation's owners, the DeLeons, have fled to safety. Alone on the property as the play begins is Simon (Herb Parker) who is protecting the house while he waits for his wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Sarah, also now former slaves, to return with the DeLeons.
He does get an unexpected guest, Caleb (Justin Pietropaolo), the DeLeons' son, who crawls in through the front door on a ferociously stormy night. Nursing a festering bullet wound in his right leg, Caleb has made his way home from the battlefield on the back of a horse that is now lying dead in the front yard. Simon is quick to recognize that the wound is on the verge of becoming gangrenous and so, with her help of another former family slave, John (Brandon Rubin), a scrounger who has been looting abandoned shops and nearby homes, he amputates Caleb's leg in the hope of saving his life.
The play's action unfolds over the course of three days, which includes the night of President Lincoln's assassination and the first night of Passover, which Simon insists be marked with a traditional seder.
It's a complicated, layered relationship among the three as Caleb (poignantly played by Pietropaulo, especially in his rendering of a letter written from the battlefield by Caleb to the pregnant young woman he loves), becomes dependent on two former family slaves for survival.
Tumult surrounds the three. The world outside, ravaged by a bitterly divisive and bloody war, is only just beginning to deal with the consequences as a new order tries to impose itself on old disorder.
Simon has deep faith not only that his wife and daughter will return but that Caleb's father also will return and make good on a promise to give Simon and John a sum of money once they are free.
There are secrets, revelations that will tip the balance among these three, especially between Caleb and John who are left to reach across a divide of race and class, empowerment and position.
Lopez charts an obvious and easy connection between the drive for freedom for black slaves and the story of the liberation of the Jewish people in their flight from Egypt's pharaoh to freedom and 40 years of wandering in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land.
Hope and trust spring eternal amid the ruins of the DeLeon estate, reflected in the play's closing image. And to make sure we get it, director Eric Peterson inserts a recording of "We Shall Overcome" as the lights fade.
As John, Rubin offers a portrayal that is not always sharply defined. Parker, on the other hand, attacks the role of Simon with declamatory excess, delivering his lines as if he were trying, without benefit of a sound system, to reach the last row of a filled-to-capacity 50,000-seat outdoor venue. There is little one-on-one connection or intimacy in a self-contained, artificially structured, pump-up-the-volume approach that is filled with oratorical flourishes and prayer meeting volume and pitch. A lot of sound and fury signifying little.
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