Matthew Lopez’ play “The Whipping Man” is currently on view at the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage, running through April 7.
It is an uneasy, dark, disturbing look at a peculiar moment in the American South, at the close of the Civil War, when the United States as a nation almost ceased to be.
The play begins in near darkness as a cry of pain pierces the air: Caleb, the scion of a Southern Jewish family, has dragged himself home on a near dead horse, nursing a gangrenous leg. The horse drops dead, and Caleb (Jeremy Aggers) will soon follow, unless part of his leg is amputated.
This grisly task will be performed by Simon (Keith Randolph Smith), the dilapidated plantation’s foreman, and John (John Stewart), the only other person around. Simon and John are newly freed slaves; they’ve been raised as Jews themselves, and Simon seems more devout than Caleb, whose hideous wartime experiences have left him doubting the existence of God.
Back to the amputation. Are you squirming? I was, because for a horrible moment I thought we were going to witness that onstage. We don’t, but Simon, like a Greek chorus, tells us the gruesome, graphic details of what will happen to Caleb if they don’t operate (without anesthesia, except for lots of liquor). Then the curtain of charity is drawn over the scene, figuratively and literally.
Director Alexander Greenfield calls the play “a new-fashioned melodrama,” and that’s as apt a description as any, “because it’s full of secrets and risk and danger,” writes Kathy Janich in the program. We are now presented, with the three men who comprise the entire cast, with the strangest ménage à trois I have ever encountered in fiction, and I mean nothing humorous or sexual by that, believe me.
Caleb’s father is never seen, but his presence (and we assume he’s alive) hangs over the place like an albatross. It was he who hired the thug from whom the play gets its unfortunate title; a man who would whip recalcitrant slaves, especially, the fiery, energetic John. There are secrets afloat here, which I cannot reveal. None of the men, especially Caleb, now an immobile amputee, knows quite how to deal or speak with the others.
Think of it: Appomattox has just occurred; and during the play the three learn that President Lincoln has been shot and killed. All are stunned, especially Simon, who movingly recalls the moment he actually met Lincoln (“Father Abraham”), and each man bowed to the other. The Great Emancipator could free the slaves, but he had no control over the aftermath, when people’s hearts and minds continue—to this day—to wrestle with the great evil that is slavery.
An unforgettable scene is the celebration of the Seder, for Passover began the day after Lee’s surrender. Caleb is reluctant, they have hardtack instead of matza, but the three do it anyway. Of course the juxtaposition of Passover with the freeing of the slaves may be too obviously symbolic for some, but then what is symbolism for?
The play has some rather contrived revelations, but the subject matter is so startling and unexpected that it doesn’t seem to matter. What does matter is some really superb acting by Jeremy Aggers, Keith Randolph Smith, and John Stewart. They humanize what could be a bewildering, depressing, conundrum of a play. They give it fire and ice, as Ms. Dickinson would say.
Attention must be paid to Jason Sherwood’s haunting, bedraggled set. It sets an ominous mood before the show even begins. Liz Lee’s lighting is quite fine. You may not love “The Whipping Man,” but its spell is hard to shake. That’s what Artistic Director Susan Booth had in mind all along.
For more information, visit alliancetheatre.org.