Playwright Matthew Lopez discovered a surprising parallel in U.S. history. On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee signed the documents of surrender at the Appomattox Court House; on the 12th, the Army of Northern Virginia disbanded. Though fighting continued in some areas, this breakup officially ended the Civil War. On Good Friday, April 14, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, who died the next day. Lopez discovered that the Jewish Passover took place the same week that the Civil War ended.
Like the Jews leaving Egypt thousands of years earlier, African-American slaves were set free. And in both instances, liberation didn’t happen overnight. Lopez concentrates on a period of transition that continues to this day.
Caleb De Leon, a Southern Jew who fought for the Confederacy, comes home to a plantation in ruins. Hobbled by a week-old wound, he can find few traces of his past, save for old Simon. The former slave remains faithful to the family and guards the charred mansion against intruders.
Young John, a black man the same age as Caleb, is torn between heading north or staying behind until the De Leon patriarch gives his former slaves promised money. In the meantime, John pilfers abandoned houses. Part of his freedom, he’s convinced, means changing the usage of words: what used to be “stealing,” he says, is now “discovering” (as the play proceeds, Old Globe costume designer Denitsa D. Bliznakova adds a witty touch: John’s “discovered” duds escalate from Tobacco Road grit to haute Antebellum couture).
Simon and John adopted their owner’s faith. They are Jews who, in effect, have been set free twice: with Moses and then again with Lincoln. The gap between the two puzzles them. “The Bible says that Jews cannot enslave Jews,” says Simon, who wants to celebrate Seder — the ritual meal commemorating the Exodus — on the Sabbath. According to Leviticus, a Hebrew “servant” can only serve six years and leave “for nothing” on the seventh. So, Simon asks, “Were we Jews, or were we slaves?”
The latter and, as the title suggests, brutalized ones at that. If the black Jews didn’t do as they were told, they went straight to “the whipping man.” Simon and John have the scars to prove that, in the De Leon family, racism trumped religion.
The Whipping Man has an insight into history and all the makings for riveting theater. But it is not a well-crafted play. It begins with a boffo effect: gangrene is eating Caleb’s leg; Simon must amputate it with found implements and whiskey for anesthetic. High drama: after which the script devolves into exposition and lengthy discussions (the lighting, approximating candles, darkens the stage for long periods and contributes to the sense of immobility). Revelations brew beneath the surface but arrive late in a hasty, almost afterthought-like conclusion.
There’s a pattern here. Each new work at the Globe this year has had a weak script: the libretto for The Whisper House, hailed by its creators as “the musical of the future,” was a train wreck; Alive and Well, also about the Civil War, was only half a play that dwindled into set-piece speeches and a comfy resolution. And now the relatively new Whipping Man (performed elsewhere but “revised” for this production) is, like the others, a fairly interesting concept but far from fully realized.
A few years back, the Globe had one of America’s finest play doctors. Jerry Patch had nurtured 100 world premieres (most at the South Coast Rep), including two Pulitzer prize winners: Margaret Edson’s Wit and Donald Marglies’s Dinner with Friends. Patch was so talented he could handle the toughest job of all: turn a flimsy or mediocre script into something at least passable. Patch went to the Manhattan Theatre Club — and took his stable of top American playwrights with him. Patch’s absence raises the question: at the Old Globe, who’s minding the text?
The play requires rain and cannon-like thunder. Sound designer Jill B.C. Du Boff (the name a soundscape in itself) struts the new White Theatre’s ear-thumping capabilities.
Director Giovanna Sardelli’s staging, however, favors the north wall of the in-the-round theater. And though she stresses physical movement, having Caleb stuck in one spot for most of two acts doesn’t help her efforts.
Avery Glymph’s John has the most range, and Glymph makes the most of it, from sly humor to flashing anger, beneath which he creates an innocence quickly becoming experienced. Underwritten Caleb is the play’s dartboard, growing more and more evil. Mark J. Sullivan, whether screaming in pain or anger, rarely rises above rant. Though he had trouble with his lines (and slowed scenes down) the night I saw the show, Charlie Robinson gave old Simon a dearly earned stability, marbled with wisdom, as when he tells John, “You don’t lose your faith by askin’. You lose your faith by not askin’.” ■
The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli; cast: Avery Glymph, Charlie Robinson, Mark J. Sullivan; scenic design, Robert Mark Morgan; costumes, Denitsa D. Bliznakova; lighting, Lap Chi Chu; sound, Jill B.C. Du Boff
Playing through June13; Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00p.m. 619-234-5623.