PORTLAND – The beauty of reviewing the same play two years apart in another state performed by a different Equity company is how the one work can be, well, different — even if its earlier version mirrors it.
And so with the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse just weeks away, our ongoing American reflection of race, culture, religion, and war can be found in Portland Stage’s rendition of Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man,” — both an aesthetically beautiful play, and a thinking person’s food to ameliorate the hunger of conscience.
Directed by Jada King Carroll, (who previously spearheaded “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Portland Stage) the play takes us to April, 1865. Seriously wounded Confederate officer, Captain Caleb DeLeon (Tom White) stumbles back to his family’s dilapidated estate outside of Richmond, Virginia, the fallen capital of the South.
There, his wounds are tended to by two of his father’s former slaves: the young, free-wheeling malcontent John (Brooks Brantly) and the older, more steady Simon (Ray Anthony Thomas), who turns out to be a father figure of sorts to all, including the audience.
Simon’s wife Elizabeth and daughter Sarah purportedly went off with Caleb’s father, Mr. Deleon, with the intent of returning. But their absence creates a tension that is at this story’s center, and not to be spoiled here.
The DeLeons were Jewish, and raised their slaves in the faith. With Passover looming, the three men huddle in the house’s foyer to celebrate a Seder, the Jewish ritual feast that marks the start of Passover.
What follows is not only the expected examination of race and religion – issues that remain to this day – but also more irony and twists than one playwright should be allowed to inject on stage.
Still, it works, and works well.
It mesmerizes. It laments. But most importantly, it educates in a way that makes complete sense to contemporary contexts.
White is a convincing Caleb in his portrayal of a combat soldier’s abandonment of God. Never mind the burden his country – the Confederate States of America – heaved upon his shoulders. War took him places that allowed his disillusionment to pour forth, and surge it did: like a tsunami of moral introspection.
Family betrayed him. And love had White’s Caleb deliver perhaps the play’s signature moment, the dream-like recounting of a love letter full of so much more than the customary tenderness and affection. It turned out to be a note, along with so many others, which he could never mail. His reasons are seminal to the play’s ongoing social commentary.
Brantly delivered a sassy yet savvy John, who we come to know by play’s end in several twists of fate that Lopez’s genius foists on us. His role was also delightfully physical, with Brantly’s ability to deliver timely humor in a serious moment brilliant in both timing and emotional relief.
How Brantly managed to squeeze out our empathy for a character who seemed to lack moral fiber is a testament to his considerable acting chops.
Finally, Thomas (who had joined Carroll on “Ma Rainey”), is the story’s Greek chorus: “You don’t get to be free; you work to be free,” his Simon growls at the upstart John.
Thomas gives us a man – a freed slave – not only big in stature, but also in spirit and constancy. He was a rock, if you will, much as his Biblical namesake, another persona rife with the irony of denial and unshakeable faith.
Lopez had Simon keep us on target, and Thomas pointed the way from start to end in booming baritones meant to stir up, yet reassure.
Brittany Vasta’s set was altogether haunting, convincing, and lyrical. Lights by Bryon Winn demarcated the start and finish of key emotional moments.
So did sound by Karin Graybash, with the added treat of classic Negro spirituals during scene changes reminding us of time and place throughout. Costumes by Hugh Hanson perfectly captured the widespread chaos of the immediate postwar South — John’s evolving wardrobe was a silent metaphor of the passage to freedom.
The play ran just under two hours, which included a 15-minute intermission.
“The Whipping Man” has won numerous honors for good reason: it’s a study in human nature, history and morals that would have made Plutarch, the master of blending all three, proud. And in my second viewing, I relearned things from my first go around, but from totally different angles.
That tip of the hat must go to Portland Stage Company.
The Civil War was huge in expanse and more far reaching in societal influence. “The Whipping Man” somehow manages to take a small slice of it and tell much of the inner story — a decidedly micro human take on the macro wave of history and fate.
Go see this play and leave your contemporary sensibilities at the door. Then prepare to be pensive on race, religion, culture and war like never before.
“The Whipping Man” runs through March 15 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave, Portland. Tickets and info call: 207-774-0465 or visit: http://www.portlandstage.org/
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).
Stages Names is the theatre review segment of From The Stacks.
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