The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez, directed by Hana S. Sharif. With Josh Landay, Leon Addison Brown, and Che Ayende. At The Hartford Stage through March 18.
When I walked into The Hartford Stage last Friday to see The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez, I didn’t know what to expect; as a person who doesn’t like to know the plot of a show before seeing it, I resisted every urge to google, bing, and wiki the play. I was, in short, going in blind (something I recommend everyone do at some point in their life).
Walking into the theatre to take my seat, I was greeted with a smile and a program. Flipping through the pages, I came to understand the basic plot and setting of the play: The Civil War – bloodiest war in American history – coupled with the sacred Passover celebration of the Israelites. Not what I was expecting based off of the title alone, but intriguing nonetheless.
The Whipping Man opens with the return of a wounded Confederate soldier, Caleb DeLeon (Josh Landay), to his war-ravaged Richmond home. There, he finds two of his family’s former slaves – the older Simon (Leon Addison Brown), who has been keeping an eye on the ruined house in the absence of the DeLeon family, and John (Che Ayende), whose reasons for returning are more ambiguous. In ninety short minutes, the audience acts as witness to an intense drama as Caleb undergoes the amputation of his wounded leg, John vividly recounts a whipping session, and the three men celebrate the holy Seder of Passover. And all the while, secrets unfold that at once bind the men together as they threaten to tear them apart, making for an edge-of-the-seat performance.
Thematically, the play draws parallels between Hebrew slaves freed from Egypt and the African slaves freed in the South – parallels that are strengthened by the fact that the end of the Civil War was concurrent with the beginning of Passover. The DeLeon family, being Jewish, passed their religion on to the slaves in their possession – Simon and John among them – so that this Seder is an especially important: in every sense, as both Africans and Jews, they are free.
Andromache Chalfant has designed for theatre goers a stage reminiscent of a haunted house – and in many ways this holds true to the plot. Shattered windows, charred floorboards, and mounds of broken furniture and waste beautifully bring the play to life as it thrusts the audience into the destruction of war. Add to this the gorgeous costumes designed by Linda Cho, the haunting sound effects by Broken Chord, and the stunning lighting by Marcus Doshi, and what you have is a stage that truly appeals to all of the senses.
But while the overall production was enjoyable and entertaining, it bears mentioning that in a play with only three characters, even just one actor’s subpar performance can bring a production down a notch or two.
Leon Addison Brown’s portrayal of a world-wise and righteous Simon was astounding in its subtlety and nuance – as was Che Ayende’s strong-headed, stubborn, and wise-cracking John. But Josh Landay’s Caleb left something to be desired. Torn between the serious and comedic sides of the character, Landay seems to have thrown subtlety out the window; the result is a Caleb that goes from one end of the spectrum to the other in a slightly less-than-believable fashion with over the top facial expressions and unconvincing tonality. While adequate, his style nonetheless did not mesh with that of the other two as well as would be desired.
Despite this last objection, though, I was very pleased with The Hartford Stage’s production of The Whipping Man and would recommend it to anyone that has not yet had the pleasure of seeing it. The characters are memorable, the plot unique, and the overarching questions about humanity, freedom, and equality will stay with you long after you’ve left the theatre.