It’s April 13, 1865. Gen. Robert E. Lee has just surrendered, so the Civil War is basically over. The next day is Good Friday, as well as the day that President Lincoln will be assassinated. It’s also the fourth night of Passover.
That’s when the action starts in “The Whipping Man,” currently playing at The George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. The setting is Richmond, Va., a city traumatized by the recent Siege of Petersburg. It’s a time of chaos in the nation, in the state, and in the almost totally destroyed house where “The Whipping Man” takes place — which just happens to be owned by a Jewish family that includes a young man who has been serving as a Confederate soldier.
All this would seem to be fertile ground for drama. Passover, after all, celebrates the Jews’ liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt, and the Jewish soldier has almost lost his life fighting to keep slavery alive — and now he’s back in the company of his former slaves, who are now free. And he’s basically at their mercy, since he’s suffering from a severe war injury.
It would be hard, in fact, to come up with another scenario that packs so many tensions into its basic set-up. But “The Whipping Man” is ultimately more contrived than profound.
Ron Canada plays Simon, one of the family’s former slaves, who is the only person living in the house at the start of the play. Caleb (Adam Gerber), the soldier, staggers through the front door with a bullet in his leg, having made his way home on a starving horse (who conveniently manages to get him to the front door before dying). These two are soon joined by John (Luke Forbes), another one of the family’s former slaves, who seems to be spending all his time these days looting and drinking.
The wise, kind Simon helps Caleb with his leg, and lectures John, who doesn’t seem to have much respect for anything, on the meaning of freedom. Simon also insists that the three celebrate Passover with a Seder — he and John are Jews, too — though he puts his own twist on the ceremony by singing the spiritual, “Let My People Go.” Caleb’s military rations are used for the matzoh, and the other elements of the Seder are put together in a similarly makeshift way.
Over the course of the two acts, painful truths are revealed and difficult choices have to be made. And the three characters talk — a lot. The second half of the first act is particularly short on action and long on conversation. And yet the play never provides a satisfying answer to the main question it raises: How could Caleb not only own slaves, but also fight for the right to keep doing so, while aware of the persecution his Jewish forefathers faced?
The show’s single set — a formerly luxurious mansion that is now barely inhabitable — immediately establishes the atmosphere. But even though Gerber does a good job at conveying the torturous pain that results from his character’s injury, and he, Canada and Forbes shows occasional flashes of desperation, the three generally seem too unflustered — not too mention too well dressed and too well groomed — for men who are trying to survive in the eye of a brutal war’s hurricane, with threats to their future well-being looming all over the place.
In 2011, playwright Matthew Lopez won the John Gassner Playwriting Award from the New York Outer Critics Circle for “The Whipping Man.” But I don’t get it. The play, to me, seems like a classic example of a work with great ambition but clumsy execution.
“The Whipping Man” will be at The George Street Playhouse through Feb. 15. Click here for more information, or to buy tickets.