The Whipping Man

  • Our critic's rating:
    February 1, 2011

    Review by Tulis McCall
    (2 Feb 2011)

    The Whipping Man sounds as if it contains a great idea for a play. It is set in April 1865, Richmond Virginia. Three men meet - three Jewish men - one is the plantation owner’s son, two are former slaves. All three have more or less been raised under the same roof. All the play needs is a story, a driving force to push forward and take these three men with it; too bad for us that there isn’t one here.

    The plantation heir Caleb (Jay Wilkison) returns home, badly wounded, and is taken in by his former slave Simon (André Braugher). Soon thereafter, a second slave who also lived on the plantation, John (André Holland) arrives home as well. Simon is the rock on which all the responsibility and sadness of the time weighs heavily. Out of duty and necessity he is the one left to guard the plantation when others, including his wife and child, have left. He is also the one who realizes that Caleb’s leg is infected and must be removed. Caleb is a lost man, returning to his home and his past without realizing how ill he is or how significantly life has changed for everyone he knows. John is a young man who sees the detritus of war as an opportunity to better himself. He rescues items from obscurity with the clear intention that it is his time to reap the rewards that he has seen given to others all his life.

    On this extraordinary set by John Lee Beatty the men gather in the foyer of the plantation where there is a convenient chaise on which Caleb can rest, and on which the operation to remove his leg takes place. The set slowly acquires the booty that John is collecting while we wait for a story to emerge. There is a lot of talk about times changing, and the past histories are doled out like playing cards. Finally, ten minutes before the Act One curtain John divulges to Caleb the truth about Simon's family - and we are left to wonder who will break this news to Simeon.

    We are forced to sit through a Seder that is nearly didactic in its presentation. What you never knew about a Seder you can learn here. And we are witness to the news that Lincoln has been killed – complete with a textbook reminiscence that begins “I met him once….” Eventually the sad news is delivered to Simon who must choose between his former master and his family.

    This is a collection of one missed opportunity after another. The idea of Jews in the South is one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” moments that points out how insular our thinking is 150 years after The Civil war, but it plays no significant part in the tale. And there are inconsistencies as well. Although the three men have lived together for over 20 years, they have three completely different accents. After his leg is removed, Caleb wakes in agony but is soon talking a blue streak with no signs of rage or denial. The booty that John collects is left in plain sight with no thought to marauders who might be stopping by. And on and on and on.

    Life doesn’t always provide us with a narrative. Stuff happens. Then more stuff happens. But it is the job of an artist to arrange the breadcrumbs on the trail so that we follow a particular path that leads us to see a point of view. We don’t have to like it, but we yearn to see it and feel it. Otherwise we would just stay home and live our stuff.

    With the exception of the set, and the effort that these fine actors put into their work, this play is a tale lacking luster or depth from beginning to end.

    (Tulis McCall)

    "All three actors imbue their characters with a natural vitality that serves to smooth over the occasional lumps in the writing. "
    Charles Isherwood for New York Times

    "Compelling but incomplete play."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "Settles into endless discussions and reminiscences, flatly staged by Doug Hughes."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "An engrossing new Reconstruction-era drama."
    Philip Boroff for Bloomberg

    "A serious and powerful examination of race, faith, and history."
    David Sheward for Back Stage

    "A worthy, if imperfect, play."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "Absorbing socio-historical detail and lurid moments of drama are neatly mixed by Lopez, whose potent brew of realism is expertly stirred by director Doug Hughes."
    Michael Summers for Newsroom Jersey

    "The storytelling never rises above melodrama, and even in Doug Hughes' well-mounted and sincerely acted production for Manhattan Theater Club, the nature of the play's appeal remains a mystery."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Bloomberg - Back Stage - The Record- Newsroom Jersey - Variety