The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez The Arden Theater Company, Nov 2. – Dec. 18, 2011, Review of Nov. 2 on WRTI, 90. 1 FM, Nov. 4.
The contradictions and complications of faith and race are played out in The Whipping Man upstairs at the Arden Theater now. Some details may be new to us but playwright Matthew Lopez has done his research. He knows all Southern homesteads during the Civil War were not plantations; nor were all Confederates’ Christians. He knows that the War Between the States ended one day before Passover observances began, and that fact led Lopez to create a drama about another exodus.
In The Whipping Man, Caleb, a Confederate soldier (possibly deserter) returns home at the war’s end to find only the family retainer, Simon at the destroyed homestead. The soldier has lost his faith -in almost everything- and soon will lose his leg. As Cody Nickell plays Caleb – the pain is palpable. Simon the elder black man – played by the wonderful Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. – no longer will take orders but he will serve. Simon’s devotion to the family and to his Jewish faith rests upon a God who permits questioning.
Simon’s a pillar of devotion. He tries to nurse Caleb back to health. He berates John, another former slave and Caleb’s childhood companion who also returns. But John, played by the gifted James Ijames, celebrates his freedom by drinking hard, thinking little, and stealing everything in sight. Neither young man cares about the seder Simon prepares: the devotional meal is one of The Whipping Man’s most memorable scenes.
Though the household is barren, the elements are found (or stolen). Simon is eloquent, pouring the water, whispering then brawling “Go Down, Moses,” asking the questions that will pry into the hearts of Caleb and John, who suffer in such different ways. Then Simon will suffer but that’s for you to find out. Thom Weaver’s subtle lighting is a fourth character in the Arden’s fine production. It supports the flickering lanterns of the time. Matt Pfeiffer’s direction is keen.