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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