Near the end of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “The Whipping Man,” three men sit on the floor of a ransacked Southern mansion after the Civil War, celebrating a makeshift Passover meal.
One, a recently freed slave, segues from reciting the ritual language of the Seder into singing the African-American spiritual “Go Down, Moses.” It’s a moment fraught with pain and illumination that binds together this play’s disparate threads as tightly as a knot.
Matthew Lopez’s play delves into a little-considered facet of history: Many Jews in the South owned slaves and raised them in their beliefs. At the same time, Lopez takes a hard look at the legacy of slavery, the dynamics of power and the meaning of faith, giving this work a sense of immediacy.
The play opens in a thunderstorm as Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon (Riley O’Toole) staggers home, wounded and delirious, at the end of the Civil War. He finds his house in ruins and his family fled, leaving behind only Simon, a former slave played by Warren C. Bowles. The two men are soon joined by John (JuCoby Johnson), another former slave who’s taken to looting abandoned homes and bingeing on stolen liquor. Over three days, while these men deal with such grim tasks as the amputation of Caleb’s gangrenous leg, they reveal closely held secrets, lies and existential dilemmas.
Simon serves as the drama’s moral touchstone, a patriarchal embodiment of conscience, and Bowles lends the role a beautifully understated yet powerful authority. In contrast to his quiet rectitude and stoic faith, the two younger men flail in frenetic confusion. Johnson’s John is a mercurial gadfly whose scathing verbal repartee descends into stuttering incoherence as he reveals the physical and psychic damage lifelong slavery has inflicted upon him. O’Toole teeters between arrogance and tears as Caleb is forced to examine the ugly reality behind his illusions of a romantic South.
“The Whipping Man” tends more toward talk than action (aside from the gruesome amputation) but noted actress Sally Wingert, in a solid directorial debut, maintains a taut pace right through to the harrowing conclusion. Michael Hoover’s set, the skeletal husk of an antebellum mansion, and Paul Epton’s atmospheric lighting reinforce the bleakness of these characters’ situations as they must each forge a new path.
Penumbra Theatre mounted this play in 2009, but MJTC deserves credit for recognizing that its timeliness and the powerful conundrum it embodies merit a luminous second look.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.