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A wounded soldier staggers gratefully into the burned-out husk of a once-grand home in Richmond, Virginia, only to be met by the barrel of a gun. It is April, 1865, and Captain Caleb DeLyons of the Confederate Army has returned home. The gun that greets him is wielded by Simon, an elderly slave that has been guarding what little is left of the household. The house, now a mere skeleton of its once-lavish self, has been shelled and burned; if shelter is to be had there, it is cold comfort.
So begins the Civil War era tale of The ArtsCenter's The Whipping Man, by Matthew Lopez, a quiet but brutal tale of reunion, betrayal, and survival. A three-member cast and a superlative set create the air of war-torn Virginia, now that the war has been concluded. Captain Caleb DeLyons (Victor Rivera) has survived the Battle of Petersburg with a bullet wound in his leg. Simon, a father figure of the slaves once owned by the family (Phillip B. Smith), pronounces the wound gangrenous. The leg must come off. But before any action can be taken, another member of the household arrives, John (Alphonse Nicholson). At Caleb’s insistence, Simon and John perform the surgery necessary for Caleb’s survival.
Directed by Mark Filiaci, The Whipping Man creates a moment in time that starts with the reunion of Caleb with two members of his now-scattered household. Now invalided by the surgery, Caleb spends his time on a chaise that has survived the looting of the house. Simon, the patriarch of the slaves held by the DeLyons family, continues to look after Caleb, not out of loyalty, but because it is the right thing to do. John, who grew up with Caleb, as Simon puts it, like “two peas in a pod,” wonders out loud why the two should stay. John has plans to go to New York, but Simon is waiting; he understands that his family — wife Elizabeth and daughter Sarah — left to escape the shelling with Caleb’s father and Simon expects them back — eventually. In the meantime, Caleb needs their help.
These three superb actors combined to recreate the war-torn South, in the days after Appomattox. On a set superbly crafted by James Carnahan, this trio carried us back 150 years. Phillip B. Smith as Simon was a gentle giant of a man, a strong and practical man who knew what must be done and had the wherewithal to do it. He was a voice of reason when John and Caleb began to battle over what needed to happen next. Smith handled his role deftly, with a quiet grace and stolid pride. Alphonse Nicholson as John was the opposite of Simon, young, brash, and by no means a friend anymore of his one-time playmate and owner. Nicholson was mercurial, one minute slouched over his drink and the next flying off to bring in more booty from the surrounding homes. Rivera, confined as he was to the chaise, was still a soldier of the Confederate army; he was angry, in great pain, and feared for his life.
These actors are masters of their craft; we were drawn in and surrounded by their interaction. They played off each other and also existed in their surroundings. The brooding house was like a fourth member of the cast.
The Whipping Man is a microcosm of the War Between the States. It is brutal, fierce, and deadly. Director Filiaci has brought each actor to fill out his character like a hand fills a glove. Nicholson, Rivera, and Smith combined in a true ensemble fashion, yet remained concrete as characters in and of themselves. We sensed the danger, the heartache, and the fear, but through it all, there was a sense of companionship.
The ArtsCenter celebrates the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with this production, which looks at slavery on a gut level. We were left drained by the pathos of this tragedy, as a terrible secret is revealed, and each character’s life is changed suddenly by its revelation. The ArtsCenter has created a time machine in which we view life torn by war, the only war to strike in the heart and soul of this country.
The Whipping Man is brooding and secretive, but it reveals a dark underbelly of life in a time that is no longer prone to stand for it. Slavery as an institution has been razed, and there is no louder clarion call than the groan that comes out of this work. It is tightly wound and ready to spring, and we were changed by its sudden and deadly conclusion.
The Whipping Man continues through Sunday, October 27. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.