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“The Whipping Man” – Intimate Civil War drama at the Pasadena Playhouse

Adam Haas Hunter, Jarrod M. Smith and Charlie Robinson all have a legacy attached to "The Whipping Man" at Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Jordon Kubat]

Adam Haas Hunter, Jarrod M. Smith and Charlie Robinson all have a legacy attached to “The Whipping Man” at Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Jordon Kubat]

The best kind of historical plays and films are those which look at some aspect of an era in a complex, yet personal way. This becomes more and more difficult with portions of history which have become iconic, larger than life, epic moments in human or national development. Which is part of what makes “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez, a co-production with South Coast Repertory now opened at the Pasadena Playhouse, so powerful. In the intimate relationship of three men at the end of the Civil War, portraits of slavery, Southern defeat and the lives of the South’s Jewish minority all coalesce.

The tale is set shortly after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Caleb, Confederate officer and son of a wealthy Richmond business owner returns to his ruined home, a damaged man in many ways. There he finds two of his former slaves: Simon, a resourceful man who acted as butler, and John, a young man his own age who was at one time his friend. Surrounding all three is a unifying element. Caleb’s family is Jewish, and his parents raised their slaves to be Jewish as well, a concept – of a people held in slavery until delivered – which offered a profound message to those so included.

What makes this play work is the unifying themes which underlie all the differences of these three men – the faith, the shared history, and the sheer unknown implied by a post-slavery-based world. This, to which one adds a powerful ensemble cast whose common sense of the play itself and their characters’ involvements make everything connect, and define the play’s power.

Adam Haas Hunter makes Caleb profoundly vulnerable, even as the aspects of a life of superiority constantly rumble under the seemingly accepting surface. Charlie Robinson proves a powerful and defining character as Simon, making him a man of innate command, the keeper of traditions. Used to running a household, he exudes a practical and hopeful energy, especially regarding a future he’s sure he can see. Jarrod M. Smith makes the reckless, damaged John a person whose happy-go-lucky opportunism hides deep scars both physical and emotional.

Director Martin Benson has a real feel for this play, where visceral connection or dissension is an essential element. His staging keeps the discussions from becoming static – a particularly difficult concept when dealing with a character forced to sit throughout most of the proceedings. Things flow rapidly, and the continuous redressing of the stage in each scene says a great deal before anyone speaks a word. Tom Buderwitz’s half-burned, collapsing mansion sets the perfect tone of change and potential despair. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes prove essentially historically accurate, and provide changes which also add layers to the narrative in quick, sometimes amusing ways.

In short, “The Whipping Man” offers a unique and rounded approach to a very difficult subject. The surprises of the script, which unfolds in an unforeseen direction, only contribute to the sense of seeing something very new about something very old – the best essence of a historical drama, in that it speaks to what has come after in subtle but essential ways. Surprise, enrichment, polish, and a new window from which to view a well-worn subject all contribute to making this play one to see. So go. No matter where you approach this from, it is worth the time.

Also, be sure to step into the Playhouse’s Friendship Center. Though I don’t always find “additional information about the play” displays helpful or even appropriate, this time the exhibit, which correlates ancient Jewish tradition, the stories of Jewish participation on both sides of the Civil War, and the connections between Jewish scripture and American slavery may prove extremely instructive to some, as it relates to the play’s essential themes.

What: “The Whipping Man” When: Through March 1, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave in Pasadena How Much: $30 – $75, with premium seating $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

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August Wilson’s “Jitney” takes a fine ride in Pasadena

Ellis E. Williams, David McKnight and Larry Bates contemplate a grudge-match of checkers in the Pasadena Playhouse production of August Wilson’s “Jitney”

When discussing the work of August Wilson, it is not whether or not to like his plays, but which to like the most. His spin on the African-American experience, gained by walking through a century in the Hill District of Pittsburgh one decade at a time, has not only left an indelible historical legacy, but cemented Wilson as one of the great playwrights of the 20th Century. His characters, rich and flawed, wrap around each other like the strains of the blues – sometimes a portrait of despair, sometimes filled with an underlying ebullience, always inspiring a connection for those who take time to listen.

A personal favorite is “Jitney,” now at The Pasadena Playhouse after a run at South Coast Rep. Set in 1977 in a gypsy cab company headquarters, it offers up intricate portraits of individuals at the same time it defines the unintended consequences of well-meaning urban renewal, and the fight against the dissolving of a neighborhood. Its characters – one after another – defy expectation even as they radiate an underplayed integrity which becomes its own bond. Flawed, sometimes very funny, these men will charm even as they make you ponder.

Charlie Robinson leads the cast as the honorable, respected Becker – leader of these independent cabbies, and a man whose name garners respect as far away as the industrial plant from which he retired. Still, he wrestles with the burden of an only son whose anticipated release from prison underscores all that went wrong in his life. Robinson’s Becker balances a calm everyday exterior with a hidden intensity in a way which makes his outbursts carry a particular weight.

Joining Robinson are Ellis E. Williams, very funny and rather pitiable in turns as the gossipy Turnbo, David McKnight as the upbeat, surprisingly self-aware alcoholic Fielding, and James A Watson, Jr. using the subtlety of body movement to display solid dependability as Doub. Larry Bates gives a warmth and a passionate earnestness to the young Darnell, rising above his past despite expectations. Kristy Johnson, as the woman inspiring Darnell to be his best self creates a fine balance between the mild panic of a financially strapped young mother and an underlying tenderness.

Rolando Boyce, as the friendly bookie and Gregg Daniel as a supportive hotel doorman provide moments of great fun, and a look at the larger community. Montae Russell, as Becker’s parolee son, offers up some of the show’s greatest passion, and with Robinson inhabits the play’s most important dialogue – an argument which hinges on the nature of manliness, and the balance between pride and responsibility.

Director Ron OJ Parson, who understudied the original production of “Jitney,” has a feel for who these people are in a way which fashions this ensemble into a cohesive community. Timing is both natural and spot-on. Passions rise as passions do, taking us inside the frame in a way Wilson’s plays should. We laugh with them. We fear for them. We are among them.

Kudos also to costumer Dana Rebecca Woods, whose careful reproduction of time and place combines with an essential sense of character. Indeed, her clothes occasionally take focus just at the moment when the play itself demands instant definition of character or purpose. The polish of craft is also present in Shaun Motley’s homey if run-down taxi station: just warm enough to be friendly, and just ratty enough to legitimize the urban development which might destroy it.

“Jitney” is warm, charming, funny, direct, angry, wrenching, and as deeply satisfying a play as one will find. I felt so when it was new, and perhaps even more so now. This production allows all of that to flourish. August Wilson’s dialogue rings real and true, and says much which needs saying about nobility or fragility in adversity and the internal hope which keeps people, and a people, moving forward.

What: “Jitney” When: Through July 15, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $29 – $59 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

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