Pasadena Playhouse's "Whipping Man" Makes a Powerful Statement

Revelation and Reconstruction

Published : Thursday, February 5, 2015 | 5:16 AM

Richmond, Virginia, 1865. The long Civil War is finally over. Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon (Adam Haas Hunter) is returning to his family’s once-grand home. As rain pours down, thunder rattles the rooftop, and lightning flashes, he struggles to open the door. Limping inside, he finds nothing but darkness in the home he once shared with his parents, sisters and slaves.

But someone is home. Emerging from the shadows with a lamp and a rifle, is Simon (Charlie Robinson), the family’s former slave. “Everything is gone,” he tells Caleb. “Everyone has left.” As the light adjusts, we can see that the home is in tatters, with half-destroyed floors and shredded curtains. So begins the Pasadena Playhouse’s production of “The Whipping Man,” written by Martin Lopez and directed by Martin Benson.

Simon has been safeguarding the house, he tells Caleb, awaiting the eventual return of his wife and daughter.

Meanwhile, former slave John (Jarrod M. Smith) has been using the house as a warehouse of what’s he been looting from local homes, abandoned in the wake of the Union victory. Caleb has returned home with a badly wounded and infected leg that will need to be amputated. At home. Caleb refuses to see a doctor.

The town of Richmond is a shambles, a victim of the rebels’ plan to destroy everything before the Yankees can get their hands on it. That eventually includes their own homes, victims of rebel-set fires.

But this Civil War story is unique in that Caleb, Simon and John, all share one very dissimilar and very non-Confederate trait—they are Jewish. When they pray, it’s not a Christian prayer.

Meanwhile, Simon realizes that it is Passover Week, the Jewish festival commemorating the story of Exodus when the enslaved Israelites were freed from Egypt. Amidst the ruins, the amputation, and the family revelations, they begin preparations for the Seder meal, a Jewish ritual feast.

It’s a powerful and meaningful story, drawing its comparison to the struggles of the original Israelites’ tale; especially as Simon and John, find themselves newly free and facing their own struggles as to what to do with this idea of “freedom.”

On the night that Abraham Lincoln is assassinated, each must find his own way of coping with all that’s now been revealed in a very painful 24 hours.

Charlie Robinson is masterful as Simon, whose wisdom, born of years of servitude, as well as service, is the foundation for Caleb’s and John’s questioning. His dramatic performance in more than one powerful monologue, brought tears to the eyes of more than a few audience members.

Jarrod Smith’s John is a carefree and conniving sort, and though burdened with his own demons, finds himself torn by family ties, even as he concocts his own escape plan.

Hunter plays Caleb as mournful and regretful, and it is through him and Simon, mostly, that the story weaves its way along.

The impressive set, by designer Tom Buderwitz, is a towering and tattered Antebellum mansion, now in ruins. A staircase barely stands, and above the main stage, it appears that the second floor has taken a hit from a cannonball.

On that main stage, the three inhabitants reveal their histories, and now must forge a future. The war has been lost, they are strangers in the new land, and, with the dawn of the new day, it is only family that can repair their home, and indeed, their nation.

“The Whipping Man” is a stirring production, emotional and meaningful. Elegantly told and dazzlingly staged, it’s a historical story as modern as last week.

“The Whipping Man” is at the Pasadena Playhouse through March 1. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. The Pasadena Playhouse is at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena.

 

 

 

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