Saturday, January 26, 2013

'The Whipping Man' Poses Stirring Questions on Post-War Civility -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Whipping Man
a play by Matthew Lopez
directed by Kimberly Senior
Northlight Theatre, Skokie
Thru February 24

I have seen hundreds of plays, many that I’ve liked—to varying degrees—and some that I haven’t.

While the subject, words, themes and structure employed by the playwright, and in concomitant—a recent addition to my vocabulary—fashion, the performance of the actors have an obvious effect on my enjoyment, I’ve never had a grasp on how much credit, or blame, should go to the director.

In enjoying The Whipping Man, a fairly recent play by Matthew Lopez now getting its Chicagoland premiere at Northlight, it seems worth noting that this was the fifth play Kimberly Senior has directed in recent years that I’ve very much liked. Especially in noting that Senior seems to be one of the busiest theatrical directors in Chicago—helming several shows beyond the ones I’ve seen—and recently directed a play at New York’s Lincoln Center, her going 5-for-5 in steering satisfying shows must be more than coincidence.

But it’s also possible that a good part of Senior’s skill is a knack for selecting not only compelling but topically unique plays to direct. The Pillowman and The Cripple of Inishmaan, both by Martin McDonagh, fit this description, as does The Overwhelming—a play by J.T. Rogers centered around the Rwandan genocide—and Amy Herzog’s After the Revolution, which weaves family politics with Communism, American-style.

And The Whipping Man has one of the most original premises I’ve yet encountered.

Based in April 1865, amidst the last days of the Civil War, the play opens with an injured Confederate soldier named Caleb (played by Derek Gaspar at Northlight) returning to his family’s Richmond home to find it deserted save for Simon (Tim Edward Rhoze), one of the family’s newly freed slaves. A second slave, John (Sean Parris), is the third character in this two-act drama.

Playwright Lopez, who according to program materials is an Episcopalian from the Florida Panhandle, the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Polish-Russian mother, adds the interesting wrinkle that Caleb is Jewish and so too have the former slaves been raised to follow Judaism.

The historical reality that many Southern Jews fought for the Confederacy—despite Jewish people having long faced ostracism and even slavery—is well-explicated in the program notes, and I was expecting this seeming contradiction to be a more prominent part of the play. Though questions of faith do factor in, and Act 2 features the best improvised Passover Seder I’ve ever seen—discovering that Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox fell on the first night was Lopez’ spark in penning the play—the narrative more acutely weaves issues of responsibility, loyalty and recompense through the three men’s relationship, with matters of faith being less at the fore.

Leading into and through the second act, Lopez throws in some theatrical twists, which while heightening the tension felt a tad too familiar in a play that had been exploring rather uncommon ground without such overtly rising action.

Nonetheless, Gaspar, Rhoze and Parris are excellent throughout and with an impressive backdrop forged by her scenic designer husband, Jack Magaw, to whatever degree Senior puts her own stamp on Lopez’ material, over 100 minutes The Whipping Man is never less than interesting to watch, and often quite gripping.

Yet while I consider The Whipping Man an excellent play that I would recommend to anyone—particularly if you can snag $20 Day-of-Show discount tickets that Northlight makes available—part of what prevents me from deeming it “absolutely phenomenal” and awarding @@@@@ is a sense that in some ways, the play itself isn’t quite as fascinating as some of the background material that surrounds it. In other words, though the play is terrific, it doesn’t quite match the brilliance of its setup.

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