One could never accuse Northlight Theatre of a lack of eclecticism in its programming. In a matter of weeks, subscribers there in Skokie have gone from chortling at Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," of all things, to a drama that begins with the graphic on-stage amputation — saw, screams, spurting blood and all — of a wounded Civil War soldier's leg.
That particular scene in Kimberly Senior's aptly intense production of Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man" is, as the playwright surely intended, enough to get you squirming in your seat. Lopez here is conjuring up the last gasps of the Civil War, setting his three-character drama in 1865 in a ruined mansion in Richmond, Va., at that historical juncture the ransacked capitol of the Confederacy. For the slaves for whom freedom came very suddenly, the apocalyptic state of affairs around them was a very mixed bag: there was looting to be had and opportunities to begin some settling of scores, but that inherently meant further destruction of the family seats to which these African-American men and women had long and complex connections, and there also was intense deprivation for slave and former master alike.
To some extent, Lopez's drama, which had its Chicago-area premiere on Friday night, is a take on a classic theme of American literature — one famously probed by Mark Twain — which is the question of whether human intimacy between persons of different races could ever be said to amount to friendship in a world where one man owned another. This question also is at the heart of the work of South African playwright Athol Fugard: "The Whipping Man" is a bit like Fugard's "Master Harold … and the Boys," if Harold had grown up, gone to war and come home wounded to the "boys."
There are three characters in "The Whipping Man," all of whom grew up in some intimacy in a family that had an especially complicated relationship with the scourge of slavery: There was unusually ample education provided, but there were also scarring visits to the titular enforcer of discipline. At the start of the play, Caleb (Derek Gaspar), the family scion and now a Confederate soldier, has crawled home with his leg filled with the poison of gangrene. The two men who take care of him (if that's the phrase) are the paternalistic Simon (Tim Edward Rhoze) and the fuming, flailing John (Sean Parris), former slaves wandering about the grand old ruin of the house that once held them, trying to wrestle with those issues of anger and dignity in a world that has exploded around everyone. The immediate action of the play is a shrewdly distinctive paradox: two former slaves are saving the life of their old master but also chopping off his leg.
There's another wrinkle, though. In the play, the trio share the Jewish ceremony honoring the start of Passover (with its potent symbolism of release from servitude). Simon and John practice the Jewish faith of their masters. The very notion of African-American slaves identifying as Jews in 1865 is dramatically arresting, of course, although, as the playwright has noted in several interviews, by no means without historical precedent.
The commonality of religion has the effect of raising the stakes — it's one thing to explore whether master and former slaves can be intimate, it's another when one adds spiritual connections and the holding of hands around a meal suffused with sacred symbolism. And, of course, it throws the Civil War in yet sharper remove when one contemplates how there were Jews who supported the Confederacy and Jews who supported the Union and who must, on the last day of that war, have sat down to break bread together, maybe for the first time as Americans who could call themselves free men. And this is what makes "The Whipping Man" so distinctive and, frankly, allows one to get past some of its more familiar tropes of shattering secrets withheld and revealed.
Senior's Northlight production is an aptly unstinting affair that's uniformly well-acted. Gaspar, who is rendered immobile for much of this play, acts a great deal with his eyes, which shift around in terror, trying to assess his current chances and the motivations of a pair of men with whom he has shared his life but now are the ones in power. Parris has just the right note of coiled energy — years of resentment boiling to the surface but still subject to uncertainty and decency. And Rhoze avoids the trap of noble sentimentality with Simon, crucially focusing on the man's constant struggles to reconcile spiritual dignity with a determination that things will, for him, no longer be the same.
Senior has often worked in smaller spaces than this one: In places, she needed to amplify her formidable skills at building dramatic tension for this much larger theater. I wanted this crumbling house, designed by Jack Magaw, to continue to collapse, leaving three heads poking up through the Beckettian rubble, unsure of what the heck to do. Still, one suspects these very capable and raw actors will push each other further as this powerful production progresses from the merely familiar — enriching its striking theatricality and potently contrasted themes of American togetherness and loneliness, construction and destruction, brotherhood and oppression. Well worth seeing and not easy to put out of mind, "The Whipping Man" is a fine drama about a moment of seismic change and its impact on a trio of Americans, ordinary and yet three of a kind.
Through Feb. 24 at North Shore Center for the Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie; running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes; tickets: $25-$72 at 847-673-6300 or northlight.org
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