VA Rep’s ‘The Whipping Man’ sheds new light on Richmond’s dark history
Director Debra Clinton truly picked the most appropriate city to put up this production of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man Richmond is itself the setting of the play… minus about 150 years.
The set at Virginia Repertory’s Neil November Theatre the stage acts as a time machine, drawing you inside a deteriorating mansion right at the end of the Civil War – complete with broken windows, a run-down wooden staircase, and a hazy mist blanketing the floor.
The play begins as Caleb is crawling inside this reminisce of a palace shouting for someone to help him – he’s wearing confederate colors and has been shot in the leg. The only man to respond to his cries is Simon who meets him with a gun and hostility… until they realize who they are to each other.
Simon was a former slave to Caleb’s family – which wasn’t your normal run-of-the-mill slave ownership. Simon says he and his children were treated like family by Caleb’s parents. Once this discovery passes, Simon decides that Caleb’s wounded leg needs to be amputated. Then John enters, right in time for the at-home surgery; John’s another former slave who grew up with Caleb and is a rebellious bundle of energy.
Probably the most notable and symbolic aspect of the play was that all the characters are Jewish and are throwing a seder in time for Passover right after the war. As they dip their vegetables into salt water to remind themselves of the tears of Jewish ancestors who were slaves in Egypt, the parallel being drawn is ripe and subsequently acted upon as he the lead of the family throws himself into a frenzy of prayer and a lively sermon of the Jewish struggle. He easily compares it to his own struggles and the despair he’s endured up until the war ended.
I won’t reveal too much because everyone in, from, or around Richmond must see this show.
Clinton does a fantastic job of filling her actors into the humongous and brilliant stage Kat Conley designed. The combined attention to detail Conley, M. Giselle Carrillo (Costume Design) and B.J. Wilkinson (Lighting Design) created this phenomenal visual representation of America’s tragic history.
They each bring forth a necessary element to the production, and their work brings together the driving force behind the reason for the audiences suspension of disbelief.
Beyond that, each actor did a phenomenal job handling their roles. Max Eddy (Caleb) never allows us to doubt the existence of his leg pain and the eventual nonexistence of half his left leg. At the opening of the second act, he speaks a letter he had sent out to someone he loves and you can feel the awesome depression he’s enduring while fighting in the war, pleading for any kind of affection to save him.
Taamu Wuya (John) has a demanding presence as well – full of energy and focus – and does a truly natural job of slipping into John’s skin. If nothing else in this play brings you to tears, Wuya deliverance of John’s tragic story about his past will break you down and help you remember the awful complexity of our Nation’s history.
Last, and most-assuredly not least, is Jerold E. Solomon and his spot on portrayal of Simon. His character was truly the leader of the three and he grabbed the attention of the audience every time he walked on stage.
Most notably, Solomon reveals his perfect voice as he sings prayers during the seder and projects perfectly around the stage.
The journey these characters go through will break all hearts in the audience, and help us all remember a little more about that dark time in history.
The Whipping man runs through March 8th at The Sara Belle and Neil November Theatre
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