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If I was a theater producer planning his new season, I’d want to open with a production guaranteed to knock the collective socks off my audience. I’d find a riveting script that would keep my patrons talking – and thinking – long after they left my theater. I’d hire the best designers to make my production visually appealing. And I’d search for the perfect team of actors to bring my story to life.
As any producer will tell you, my “wish list” doesn’t always fall into place – no matter how hard they try. But theatergoers at the opening night performance of “The Whipping Man” at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield were presented with a rare treat indeed: a riveting drama in which every element of the production was top notch. The result was a powerful night at the theater that won’t soon be forgotten – and an impressive start to the new season!
With the country in the midst of commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, JET has teamed with Plowshares Theatre Company to present what I expect is one of the most unusual of the many Civil War-related projects scheduled throughout the state. While many exhibits and re-creations focus on the legendary battles – or debate the war’s cause – “The Whipping Man” explores faith, family, freedom, secrets and the war’s outcome on a specific household in Richmond, Virginia – a Jewish home, now in ruins.
And a home in which the slaves were raised as Jews.
Partially charred and with gaping holes is how the owner’s son, Caleb DeLeon (Rusty Mewha), finds his once beautiful home upon his return from the war only four days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. His unexpected arrival is met by a rifle-toting (now-former) slave, Simon (Council Cargle), who is protecting what’s left of the house from looters. (The rest of the DeLeon family, including Simon’s wife and daughter, had temporarily relocated elsewhere.) Caleb has been severely wounded and requires medical attention, but he refuses – for reasons he won’t explain. Without treatment, death is inevitable. But the arrival of yet another former slave, John (Scott Norman), provides Simon with the physical resources necessary to remove Caleb’s gangrene-filled leg at home. Which he does.
The soldier’s return coincides with Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the ancient Israelites’ freedom from slavery in Egypt. So with a little thievery and imaginative culinary skills, Simon prepares a not-so-traditional seder.
But secrets past and present are bubbling to the surface, which threaten the uneasy tranquility that’s building between two people who were once enslaved and the son of the master who owned them.
By now you must be asking yourself, “Were there black Jewish slaves in the Old South?” Although there seems to be little historical evidence to accurately answer that question, playwright Matthew Lopez offers an intriguing look at slavery through the eyes of not only American slaves, but of a people whose own captivity was chronicled so thoroughly in the Old Testament. Such a parallel, then, provides a fertile garden in which to plant ideas and ask important questions. How did the biblical guidelines regarding slavery inform the DeLeon’s treatment of their slaves, if at all? What defines a family? And are we victims of our upbringing, or are we truly free to chart our own destinies?
The answers Lopez imagines drive his story to its powerful conclusion.
All of which are amplified by director Gary Anderson’s fine interpretation of the script. “The Whipping Man” is a “talky play” – meaning one with lots of conversation, but little action. As such, the pace of the story must be carefully controlled, and the director and his actors must dig into the meaning behind every phrase provided them by the playwright. To miss even the slightest nuance or ignore seeds carefully planted could result in a missed opportunity to deepen or broaden the experience for the audience.
Neither happens, as Anderson keeps his actors focused on their characters’ emotions at all times – both hidden and up front – and the resultant performances keep the audience fully engaged in the story from start to finish.
The story’s glue is Simon, and Cargle plays him with great respect and confidence. Cargle has been one of the local industry’s shining stars for decades, and his work here is the perfect showcase for his talents. Simon is a proud and loving man, an observant Jew, and one who understands the impact of his new-found freedom. Cargle plays all of Simon’s emotional ups and downs to perfection, delivering a handful of “moments” in the second act that cement his reputation as one of the industry’s best. (He’s also one of the nicest men you’ll ever meet!)
John is the trickster, the instigator and the games player – and Norman’s interpretation serves the character well. John is looking out only for himself, and Norman captures his youthful bravado quite nicely.
Mewha, known primarily for his fine work in comedies and musicals, spends most of the production off his feet and with limited physical movement. (Remember, Caleb is recovering from major surgery and is confined to a partially burnt Chaise lounge.) Audience members should pay close attention to the intensity of his portrayal: He’s in character every moment of the production, even when the focus is on one of the other characters. His reactions – sometimes barely perceptible – are a revealing window into Caleb’s soul.
The set by Melinda Pacha should be considered the play’s fourth character, as it sets the tone for the entire production the second the show begins, aided and abetted by Jon Weaver’s lights and props by Diane Ulseth.
The production’s flaws are minor – and mostly due to the script. In particular, Simon’s revelation in the final minutes of the show aren’t as shocking as the playwright may have anticipated – at least not to those paying attention, or those familiar with history.
So if you’re like me, and you go to the theater to discover something new about yourself or the human condition, check out “The Whipping Man.” It’s intense, it’s riveting, and you’ll likely be uncomfortable every now and then. But you’ll also experience one unforgettable night at the theater!
‘The Whipping Man’
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at Aaron DeRoy Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday & Sunday through Oct. 2. $36-$43. 248-788-2900. http://www.jettheatre.org
The production then reopens Oct. 6 courtesy of Plowshares Theatre Company. Full details will be announced soon.