As both Lincoln and Django Unchained rack up Oscar nominations and Civil War books by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Bill O’Reilly share space on Amazon’s best-seller list, America continues its neurotic cultural obsession with the War Between the States and its slave-holding past. The intense popularity of young playwright Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, one of the most-produced works across the country in the last few years, also bears out our unrelenting interest. This smart and affecting play deserves the attention.
The writer finds what might seem impossible: a fresh angle on the war. Taking note of Passover’s proximity to the war’s end in 1865, Lopez imagines a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier returning to his parents’ home in Richmond, Virginia, to find it ransacked but occupied by two of his family’s longtime slaves, who are also practicing Jews.
Lopez skillfully metes out the shifting complexities of these men’s relationship in the first days after Appomattox. Soldier Caleb (Derek Gaspar) clearly has affection for the older Simon (Tim Edward Rhoze) and younger John (Sean Parris), which they return in differing measures. Yet the injured Caleb, whose gangrenous right leg needs amputating, at first instinctually orders Simon around as the former slave tries to help him. “These things you keep telling me to do,” Simon says, “you need to be asking me now.”
As the devout and loyal Simon suggests the trio prepare a seder that holds extra significance at this historical moment, the more defiant John slyly reveals new information that ups the stakes. Kimberly Senior’s effective, compelling production, featuring three poignant performances on Jack Magaw’s handsome unit set, presents a challenging new take on our history of incivility.