Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through Feb. 24
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The Whipping Man” at Northlight Theatre tackles such an intriguing and unfamiliar subject that it’s relatively easy to forgive a few shortcomings.
Ignoring the old injunction to “write what you know,” playwright Matthew Lopez delved into the history of the Civil War and came up with the idea of exploring the relationship between Southern slave-holding Jews and their just-freed slaves, who had been raised in the faith. The eureka moment for him, he says in the program notes, was discovering that in 1865 the Passover observance began the day after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
So Lopez sets “The Whipping Man,” whose title refers to the abhorred person slaves were sent to for brutal punishment, in April of 1865 in the ruins of a mansion in Richmond, Virg., capital of the defeated Confederacy. As the play opens, a wounded Confederate soldier exhaustedly hobbles into the seemingly deserted place, nicely realized in Jack Magaw’s rundown set and Christine A. Binder’s hauntingly gloomy lighting design. He turns out to be Caleb DeLeon (Derek Gaspar), son of a prominent Southern Jewish family, and he’s come home.
Simon (Tim Edward Rhoze), the ex-slave who stayed behind (rather than evacuating) to await the return of his wife and daughter along with Caleb’s father, their former master, finds Caleb in severe pain and quickly determines that the gangrenous leg has to be amputated. But Caleb refuses to go to the hospital, and Simon ends up performing the harrowing, audience-shocking act with the reluctant help of John (Sean Parris), the younger and wilder ex-slave who has remained behind for reasons as-yet unknown and spends his time looting the vacant neighborhood houses for everything from candelabra to chairs.
As the first act unfolds under Kimberly Senior’s carefully modulated direction, we see the complicated dynamics driving these characters, who are trying to come to grips with new realities and shake off old preconceptions and habits. While there are parallels to Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold … and the Boys,” the fact that the African Americans are Jewish and the Jews once were slaves themselves adds a layer of ironies.
The most religious of the trio is Simon, who’s determined to celebrate Passover with a seder, even if hardtack has to substitute for matzoh and celery for bitter herbs. Deeply moved by his new freedom yet determined to fulfill his responsibilities, he’s always convinced he knows the right thing to do, though his faith is tested by a horrible revelation and the news that “Father Abraham” (Lincoln, that is) has been assassinated. Caleb, on the other hand, lost his faith in the trenches at nearby Petersburg, while John, who grew up with him — ”like two peas in a pod,” Simon says — never really took it seriously.
The centerpiece of the short second act is the seder, followed by a series of revelations leading to a fairly predictable finale. The biggest problem, besides the by-the-numbers format, is that Simon’s way of leading the seder is to deliver an overly long sermon on freedom. It might come across as less tediously preachy if more effort were put into the singing of “Go Down, Moses,” the spiritual that pointedly deals with the same events as Passover, but this is surprisingly perfunctory.
Rhoze’s slightly stiff performance as Simon exacerbates the situation and makes him seem more self-righteous than simply righteous. Parris, on the other hand, is terrific as John, combining the easygoing humor of someone who’d like to glide through life unfettered with the fears, anger, resentment and self-loathing of a man humiliated and scarred by his past yet stuck and unable to move on. Gaspar, who spends most of the time immobile sitting on a fainting couch, also does a good job conveying a range of emotions, as well as Caleb’s sheer weariness.
To Lopez’s credit, he has a knack for engrossing dialogue, and the staging — including a powerful thunderstorm — adds to the drama of “The Whipping Man,” but it really needs a better second act that can carry through on the promise of the first.