New Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah gets off to an astonishing start with his directorial debut production of Matthew Lopez’s mesmerizing play The Whipping Man.
Atmospheric and haunting, the play unfolds at the Head Theatre, almost like a desolate ghost story. Set in Richmond in 1865, the tumultuous close of the Civil War, in a derelict antebellum mansion with rain streaking the French windows, two slaves and their former owner, a Jewish ex-Confederate soldier, wrestle with the past and questions of faith, ownership, and the pungent essence of freedom.
All three of the men are Jewish—Caleb (Michael Micalizzi) by heritage, the former slaves Simon (Kevyn Morrow) and John (Jonny Ramey) by having the religion of the master thrust upon them. One of the delectable intricacies of the play involves Simon and John being more observant and steadfast in their faith than Caleb. Their faith was given to them and they fear it could be taken away. The two debate how to make horsemeat kosher, quote the Torah and Leviticus in their finest Hebrew, and studiously prepare for an improvised Passover Seder while Caleb sits there simmering with rage over the apparent absence of God in Appomattox, Petersburg and other battle sites.
All the while, Caleb and John ask the question “Are we Jews or are we slaves?” How can a person be both? How can a Jew, a former slave, be a slave owner? How can you love someone when you own them? In keeping with the Jewish tradition, it is the questions that affirm and heighten their relationship with God, not receiving the answers.
The preparations for the Passover ritual—gathering collard greens for the bitter herbs, hardtack biscuits for matzo, a purloined bottle of wine to fill Elijah’s cup—give the play an abiding rhythm that works to lull the three men, who are tormented and scarred by their shared past and the war in ways both external and borne down deep inside. Caleb has returned with a gangrenous bullet wound that costs him his leg (the home amputation performed by Simon and John is gruesomely accurate and not for the squeamish), while the former slaves hide their wounds—Simon with an armor of dignity and servitude, John with the swagger of a cunning thief and natural-born liar. The slaves’ ordeal is embodied in the apocryphal figure of the Whipping Man, whom Mr. Ramey’s John brings to terrible life—a Golem-like monster fashioned from the sinew, blood and sweat of the oppressed.
By the time they light the candles at sundown, even Caleb is drawn into the comfort of the ritual, which casts a palpable spell over the assembled and the audience, as you find yourself powerfully moved by the ancient words and the stirring resonances between the Jewish fight for freedom in Egypt long ago and the battles African Americans faced in the aftermath of a bitter, conflicted war.
The spell smithereens when Caleb’s blurts out the secret that destroys whatever bond remained between the three men. In an unforgettable moment, Simon rushes out into the stormy night, shouting out the last words of the Passover Seder—“Next year, in Jerusalem!’’—words that are both a promise and a threat.
Mr. Lopez’s rich, impassioned history play is realized with staggering force by Mr. Kwei-Armah and his cadre of exceptional actors, whose performances are enhanced by Neil Patel’s spectacularly ruined shell of a set. Every detail is perfect—the rain-damaged flocked wallpaper and askew paintings, the sweeping staircase fallen into disrepair, the still-majestic chandelier, the shards of furniture that hint at the house’s well-appointed past.
In this setting, three actors contribute commanding performances, starting with Mr. Morrow’s Simon as the play’s ethical core—a man who knows everybody’s story and painfully realizes the importance of knowing and owning up to your personal truth. When he sings the traditional Passover songs and speaks Hebrew, you can feel the spirit infusing every syllable. Mr. Ramey’s John is one of those young men who are as dangerous as they are playful—he is so used to living by his wits he has lost his moral compass. And Mr. Micalizzi’s Caleb is unexpectedly sympathetic, someone tragically deluded by his finer feelings of love and duty toward his former slaves.
The relationship between Jews and slaves in the antebellum South is a story you may not know, but is one you are not likely to forget after seeing Center Stage’s haunting production of The Whipping Man.
The Whipping Man continues thru May 13, 2012 at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert St, Baltimore, MD.
Details and tickets
The Whipping Man
by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah
Produced by Center Stage
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission