Madison Theater Guild's "The Whipping Man"
The Whipping Man never appears onstage, but the presence of the man — who dealt out brutal beatings to disobedient slaves — is felt keenly by each of the three characters in the Civil War-era drama of the same name.
The Madison Theatre Guild production, which runs at the Bartell Theatre through March 18, takes place on the DeLeon estate in 1865 in Richmond, Virginia. Though the play begins several days after the Confederate Army surrendered at Appomattox, the legacy of slavery cannot be thrown off as simply as changing into new clothes. But that is one way that the newly freed John (Jalen Thomas) marks his emancipation — by stealing clothing, whiskey, silver, books and anything that’s not nailed down from the crumbling shells of once-grand homes.
John and another former slave, the older and more practical Simon (Tosumba Welch), have been sent to the ruins of the family estate to wait for the return of Caleb (Whitney Derendinger), the son of their former master. Caleb served as a Confederate officer for the past four years, most recently in the trenches at Petersburg. Caleb stumbles home with a bullet wound in his leg that is rapidly turning gangrenous, so Simon and John are charged with caring for and protecting him until the rest of the family returns.
Matthew Lopez’s play presents Caleb and his former slaves as Jews, reunited on the eve of Passover. (There were, in fact, roughly 10,000 Jewish soldiers on both sides of the conflict, and it was not unusual for slave owners to impose their religion on those they enslaved.) The holiday commemorates the deliverance of Jews from slavery in Egypt and their freedom as a nation under Moses. Dramatically, the parallels are irresistible.
As Caleb, Derendinger mines the emotional side of a wounded, heartbroken soldier who has seen too much suffering; his world weariness doesn’t always square with his wide-eyed naiveté as he’s forced to confront the brutality the slaves have suffered at the hands of his own family.
As John, Thomas captures a sense of rage that can no longer be contained. He lashes out in every direction, looking for revenge in large and small ways. But his rage has terrifying consequences.
However, the core of this play belongs to Welch as Simon. The actor exudes the humanity, faith and empathy that are the bedrock of this even-tempered, former house slave. His wise counsel to his young and reckless friend and his self-absorbed former owner is both practical and demanding; he urges forgiveness and compassion while holding them to a higher standard. As he conducts the Passover service and sings the spiritual “Go Down Moses,” Welch’s warm, strong voice fills the theater, and the arresting power of his faith radiates through the audience. It is even more devastating, then, when Simon responds to a betrayal by his two companions, a scene Welch delivers with piercing disdain.
Director Dana Pellebon does a commendable job weaving these voices together as the three men face a new reality at the end of the Civil War. Although The Whipping Man sometimes leans heavily on philosophy, the struggles of these characters are palpable and relevant as this country continues to define the relationships of its people: white and black, powerful and disenfranchised, faithful and disillusioned, free and captive.