Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man is a fascinating story about the complex and contradictory relationships between newly freed slaves and their masters right at the end of the Civil War.
The 2006 play is the first historically set drama that None Too Fragile has presented, featuring an incredibly rich story of three characters harboring devastating secrets from each other. The play is set in the war-ravaged mansion of the DeLeon family in Richmond, Va., where loyal and noble slave Simon, who has just learned he is a free man, is holed up in an effort to protect the abandoned family home.
David Lemoyne’s excellent portrayal of the faithful Simon is the backbone of this tense drama. His elder slave represents the voice of both faith and reason to younger slave John as well as the master’s son, Confederate soldier Caleb.
Caleb’s family is a Southern Jewish family that has taught its faith to its slaves over the generations. Simon fully embraces and upholds Judaism in times of great uncertainty, which young John goes along with in a beautiful scene where the three men enact an improvised Seder. The setting is Passover, which began the day after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender that ended the war.
Actor Benjamin Gregorio seizes the stage as the injured, desperate, frightened Caleb crawls into his family home, hyperventilating from his wounds. A graphic medical procedure that ensues is powerfully staged by director Sean Derry.
That moment as well as other adult content makes this a drama for mature audiences only.
As John, actor Brian Kenneth Armour paints a picture of a dissolute, insolent young man rather than one seething with bitterness who could explode at any moment due the brutality he has suffered from his master. Despite the tiny black box playing space at None Too Fragile, on opening night Armour mumbled his lines so much we couldn’t hear most of what John was saying in his first scene when the young man shows up at the DeLeon mansion as a man on the run.
For this three-character drama to be effective, John is supposed to be the key character generating tension with both slave Simon and his master’s son, Caleb. But rather than coming across as bitter and tightly wound, Armour’s John practically saunters in, drinking and displaying the many fruits of his looting the neighbors’ homes.
Both Armour’s body language and his manner of speaking come across as too modern in this 1865 play compared to the other two actors. His ineffective characterization and lack of angry emotion diminishes the power of Lopez’s story, especially during a later revelation by John that should be stunning.
None Too Fragile’s staging is very simple yet effective, featuring little more than a pallet bed in a corner as the play opens. The play, which was first produced regionally at Cleveland Play House in 2012, had John looking more and more gentrified each time he enters by donning an additional garment that he has pilfered.
At None Too Fragile, that idea of accumulation is achieved by the set featuring more and more furniture that John has purloined each time a new scene opens.
Playwright Lopez was not raised Jewish and is not black but he was intrigued by the history of Southern Jews who were corrupted by slavery. His play, whose themes include loyalty, redemption and painfully intertwined histories, employs rich symbolism of Abraham Lincoln as the slaves’ Moses. The drama debuted in New York at the Manhattan Theatre Club Off-Broadway and is one of the most widely produced new America plays of the last several years.
Although one of the characterizations in None Too Fragile’s rendition of this three-man play is disappointing, The Whipping Man is still worth seeing to experience Lopez’s gripping storytelling.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj or follow her on Twitter @KerryClawsonABJ.