In Taproot Theatre’s stirring local premiere of the arresting Civil War-era drama “The Whipping Man,” actor William Hall Jr. submerges himself in the role of Simon — a man who fully appreciates the meaning of liberty.
The devastating war has just ended, and Simon is keeping looters at bay at the Richmond, Va., manse where he has long lived in servitude. Suddenly his former master’s son, Caleb (Ryan Childers), a Confederate Army officer, bursts into the trashed, abandoned house bearing a badly infected leg wound and some festering secrets.
Then, a coup de théâtre: Discovering the half-dead Caleb, Simon blesses him with a Hebrew prayer.
Were there slaves who were practicing Jews? It may have been rare but it was likely, say historians of the antebellum South where some wealthy Jewish clans kept slaves.
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Powered by this fascinating conceit, and the resonant historical fact that the fall of the Confederacy and the Jewish holiday of Passover overlapped in April 1865, playwright Matthew Lopez affectingly explores the meaning of liberation, oppression, family and reconciliation in a land which still is haunted by its past sins.
For a three-actor play set in a single room (aptly designed by Mark Lund), plenty happens. We witness (some of) a grueling makeshift surgical procedure, and more crucially an impromptu Passover seder, with hardtack for matzo and wine provided by bright, bitter young John (Tyler Trerise), another former slave of Caleb’s family.
But in Act 2, a ruminative moral and theological debate arises — organically so, given the parallel stories of ancient Israelites escaping bondage in Egypt, and black slaves reclaiming their freedom in America.
Singing “Go Down, Moses” and exulting in President Lincoln’s emancipation order, Hall’s wise patriarch is aglow with hope for a future as a fulfilled free man.
By contrast, Caleb has been spiritually destroyed by the brutality of the battlefield and the culture he was born into. John has no religious qualms about looting neighbor houses to survive in the wasteland of postwar Richmond, and he crows about a future life in the North. But in a way, he’s as haunted and hobbled as Caleb.
Though Hall is the dominant, nearly rabbinical figure, “The Whipping Man” closes with the open question of how the younger men, adversarial but inextricably connected, will go forward in a shattered nation — an America desperately in need of a more perfect union.
Lopez’s script often relies on melodramatic strokes and schematic coincidences, and the monologues can get preachy. But such tactics and several metaphors writ large — i.e., the correlation between a diseased limb and a diseased society — give “The Whipping Man” a 19th-century theatrical texture that is apropos.
Under Scott Nolte’s attuned direction, the action is robust and the rapport between the actors compelling. Childers radiates exhaustion and anguish convincingly, while largely confined to a couch. Hall is impressive when he’s fervent or funny, and Trerise also, whether he’s strutting or sunken. Their work, and G. Valmont Thomas’ strong turn in Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold … and the Boys,” now playing at West of Lenin, reminds us we don’t often see commanding lead African-American roles on prominent Seattle stages lately — though we have actors in our midst who are made for them.
Misha Berson: email@example.com