By Mathew Lopez
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Review by Rachel White
Copyright 2013 by Rachel White, all rights reserved.
|Frankie Alvarez as Caleb, Michael Genet as Simon, Biko Eisen-Martin as John
in The Whipping Man. Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Alan Simons.
I was completely hooked by the opening scene of The Whipping Man, the blasted out old plantation home, an ex-slave alone caring for what’s left, and a young confederate soldier, Caleb (Frankie J. Alvarez), home and injured with a gangrenous leg, his family clearly gone. It’s up to Simon (Michael Genet), an only slightly educated ex-slave, to do a job that any of us would only ask of a trained surgeon in a sterilized hospital room after being powerfully anesthetized. As Simon pours liquor over the agonized Caleb’s leg to numb and “clean” the wound, I suddenly wondered how any of us are here at all. Worst of all, Simon, newly freed, does not want to be told what to do. It’s a pretty stunning opening, beautifully set up, tense and emotional, rich with possibilities.
Simon’s son, John (Biko Eisen-Martin), soon returns home fresh from looting the local houses that have been deserted during the war. Eisen-Martin plays him with snappy young buck energy tinged with anger. We learn something else – all of these characters are Jewish. John was taught to read some of the scripture as a child until he began asking too many apt questions and was cut off.
From there, the play began to lose its grip on me. It might have been that the first danger was averted too quickly. Caleb comes out of his stupor with a stump leg, disabled completely. Yet he doesn’t seem in grief over this, and the loss of the leg is never really dealt with again in a significant way. The subtle and not-so subtle changes in the master/slave dynamic that must have caused such grief and confusion for both the ex-slave and ex-master alike are overshadowed by skeletons pouring out of every closet and relatively conventional plot twists.
I wondered if this production could have benefitted from a quieter, more realistic interpretation on the part of the director. If the director had allowed more silences into the play, I might have felt the anguish of the characters more deeply. There is nothing subtle about the McDonough’s style or the play itself, and so the characters begin to feel more like types rather than a group of people living in a truly critical situation. Everything is delivered at such a fever pitch, that some of the more important moments of the play are overwhelmed. John’s painful account of his abuse at the hands of the whipping man was shouted at Caleb with such shrill force and accusation. But many moments are delivered with this kind of ferocity, and so some of the more tragic nuanced implications of John’s monologue got lost. Its connection to John’s impulse to steal, for instance, or his grief over never learning to read could have been more clearly connected to his experiences with the whipping man.
Yet, The Whipping Man is a play worth seeing. The themes and questions raised are important ones about family, responsibility and freedom. In one haunting scene, Simon leads a Passover Seder that the characters perform together with recitations from Exodus. The scene was extremely theatrical and resonated from a deep ancient place, a place of suffering, ritual and hope in the future. There is enough richness and tragedy in the story itself; the artists need not work so hard to show us it’s there.
The Whipping Man
January 8 – February 2, 2013
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202