“The Whipping Man” Arrives Again- This Time At New Jewish Theatre With Provocative Results

J. Samuel Davis prepares to remove the rotting leg of Austin Pierce as Gregory Fenner holds on. Photo: John Lamb

J. Samuel Davis prepares to remove the rotting leg of Austin Pierce as Gregory Fenner holds on. Photo: John Lamb

The excellent Matthew Lopez drama- “The Whipping Man”- had a very successful run at the Black Rep last year. It’s resurfaced this year at New Jewish Theatre and the results are much the same. Although a totally new cast and new director, it still packs a wallop and, with a slightly different interpretation, still impresses. Set on three significant days immediately after the Civil War, three lives intersect including the son of a plantation owner and two of the former family slaves who are now free men. With the house in shambles after the fighting in and around Richmond, these three men find some solace in the past but some uneasiness about the future as they all hold secrets that must eventually come out.

Director Doug Finlayson takes a slightly lighter approach but by no means cuts into the devastation that surrounds these three tragic characters. Caleb (a powerful performance by Austin Pierce) enters and collapses in the main room of the former opulent mansion. Simon, played with a fine mix of strength and tenderness by J. Samuel Davis, confronts him until he realizes it his old masters’ son who has obviously been wounded in the war. What Caleb describes as a “scratch” turns out to be a bullet hole that has degenerated into gangrene. Enter, in disguise, Caleb’s old slave and playmate, John, who had left the household but now returns having become a “procurer” of certain objects from the surrounding crumbling homes. Gregory Fenner gives a masterful performance as he takes his new role as “gentleman thief” a bit too seriously.

Gregory Fenner, J. Samuel Davis and Austin Pierce celebrate their improvised Seder meal at the New Jewish Theatre production of "The Whipping Man." Photo: John Lamb

Gregory Fenner, J. Samuel Davis and Austin Pierce celebrate their improvised Seder meal at the New Jewish Theatre production of “The Whipping Man.” Photo: John Lamb

The dates that coincide to make this an even more moving piece are April 13th to 15th, 1865. The war is over, Passover begins and President Lincoln is assassinated. Caleb’s family is Jewish and, as was the practice, many of the slaves who served them took up the family religion. So both Simon and John are devout while Caleb has lost his taste for religion along with much of his innocence in the war. What follows is Simon’s insistence that Caleb’s leg must come off in order for him to live, a scramble for items necessary for a proper Seder meal and then the blow- to Simon in particular- that the president has been killed. While these significant events are taking place, there are many family matters that have been hidden from each of the characters that eventually come out and provide an even more devastating tenor to the threesome. It’s a story of caring, hope and animosity that clash as they all realize the world has changed and they must all change with it.

Gregory Fenner as John and Austin Pierce as Caleb salute in the devastating final scene in "The Whipping Man" at NJT. Photo: John Lamb

Gregory Fenner as John and Austin Pierce as Caleb salute in the devastating final scene in “The Whipping Man” at NJT. Photo: John Lamb

John C. Stark has provided an exquisite scenic design with the war-ravaged mansion showing signs of fire and looting while Michael Sullivan’s lighting design enhances the elements with a somewhat dim but powerful scheme that provides emphasis to the story with the added burst of lighting that seems even more emphatic with the dimly lit room. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes also are spot on and the Robin Weatherall sound design brings the proper mood with the almost non-stop rain that fades in and out during the play.

It’s been fascinating to be able to compare the two productions so close together. They are both powerful thanks to the wonderfully crafted script but the nuances in interpretation make them slightly different- not better or worse- just different. But “The Whipping Man” is a play that deserves a wider audience anyway to bring this unusual and deeply moving story to as many as possible. The New Jewish Theatre production runs through February 16th. Call the box office at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

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