The Whipping Man – Fire Away
A REVIEW BY ACHILLES FEELS
Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man is one of those plays that’s oh-so-much-more at home in a small space. It feels just right, then, that this show is playing on Fells Point’s smaller second-floor stage. A treatment this intimate deserves a venue with tension, and that’s exactly what it gets. The Whipping Man is an excellent piece of dramatic writing, real, honest, and (at times) jarringly fucking funny. You wouldn’t think a play about slavery and the emancipation of African Americans in a deserted plantation would be a damned knee slapper, and it isn’t, but Lopez injects the humor through the thoughtful, careful juxtaposition of personalities.
Man opens with a man (duh) stumbling into a Civil-War-deserted house that recently suffered a fire on the upper floors. The man is in excruciating pain from a gunshot wound to the leg. He is Caleb (Michael Joseph Donlan), a Confederate solider and former son of this (Jewish) household. Simon (Percy Thomas), a former slave, enters, gun raised and ready to defend what’s left of the property. Simon realizes that the solider is gravely injured, and insists that Caleb’s leg come off lest he die a slow, gross, painful death from gangrene. John (Ian Smith), another former slave, is caught looting adjacent properties and the story of these three gentlemen unfolds. At first, it seems like Simon might almost be performing revenge by amputation, sort of a Miseryesque type of thing, only he’s much more sympathetic than the luscious Annie Wilkes (really, would you blame him?). This is not the case, and, after the home-surgery [SHUDDER-TBO] we learn a lot more about who these people were, and are, to each other. The two-act can get slow in places, but I think it’s more of a pacing and dialog issue than a writing shortfall. These relationships are deep, and these words come from a place of truth and history. If the ending is tender, it’s far from sweet.
The three actors work together exceptionally well. Strongest among them, for me, was Ian Smith’s John. He does well when embodying the character’s two-sided heart, the anger and the comedian. His physicality is precise and his timing perfect, the performance equal parts tension and release. Percy Thomas plays Simon as a man who is so rich with history and misplaced compassion (it’s difficult, you see, he’s known both of these men from kids) that he’s almost drowning in it. Powerful. Michael Joseph Donlan’s Caleb goes through it during the course of the play, and he’s able to keep up with the emotional switchbacks that the part requires. If anything, I wish director Barry Feinstein had pushed even harder on the stress inherent in the script and insisted on more rehearsal (some line issues were unfortunate). There were a moments when it felt like the air was going out of the room right when we needed to be holding our breath.
Set by Bush Greenbeck leaves most of all this to the imagination. A large set of doors, two arched window frames, a painted backdrop and you figure out the rest (though if the furniture is supposed to be from the ransacked home of a wealthy Civil-War-era Virginian estate, I didn’t feel it). Lighting design by Charles Danforth III shows some positive adjustments on his usual themes: his scrollbars aren’t running across the fixtures with lights at full blast and there wasn’t any of his signature rose-tint, which is a blessing. Sound design by Harry Bechkes could have been more present and supportive; there was some rain, and an occasional clap of thunder, everything else seemed muddled. Here Feinstein could have kept tighter reign on the visual and technical elements instead of leaving the actors bumping around in a world that felt, at times, like it was fighting the story instead of enhancing it.
THE BOTTOM LINE: I think The Whipping Man is important right now, dark, bold, and powerful. It speaks to you. The themes of blackness in new America, religion, internalized and externalized slavery, family ties, the uneasiness of “freedom” and the guilt of the oppressor who has just found the word – there’s a lot there that haunts, and that should. Go see and feel your way through this emotional roller coaster of a story. It does not disappoint.
Email Achilles Feels at firstname.lastname@example.org
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