Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic
Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic

The current offering on the stage of the venerable Pasadena Playhouse is a searing drama of war.  A war some Americans are still arguing about that ended 150 years ago.  Yes, that war.  The American Civil War.

Playwright Matthew Lopez has penned a Civil War drama with a new wrinkle regarding the characters. the “The Whipping Man” (currently the 4th most produced drama in the country this year; according to the folks who track such things) deals with at least two social issue dichotomies of that time period: racial prejudice and anti-Semitism.  The political issues of 1865 still plague our country, even after all these years, the legacy and bitterness of losing the war and a way of life simmer just beneath the societal surface.  And, those resentments and feelings are not exclusive to America.  Just check-out the evening news for on-going evidence.

Adam Haas Hunter, Charlie Robinson and Jarrod M. Smith in THE WHIPPING MAN. Photo by Debora Robinson.
Adam Haas Hunter, Charlie Robinson and Jarrod M. Smith in THE WHIPPING MAN. Photo by Debora Robinson.

The story of “The Whipping Man”, insightfully and intelligently directed by Martin Benson in short, is set in Virginia following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, which ends the Civil War. The tale involves a wounded Jewish Confederate Captain, who is near death.  He crawls back to his childhood plantation, only to find it in ruins and occupied by two of his family’s former slaves who are preparing for a Passover Seder.

The once divided, but soon to be reunited country, is embarking on a new chapter in its history.  The relationship between the cultures of the North and the South is tenuous at best.  A similar unsettling personal relationship is put to the test when Caleb (an intense Adam Haas Hunter), the son of a Jewish slave owner must confront the new reality – a society of freed slaves – and his now-altered relationship with Simon (a terrific Charlie Robinson), the grandfatherly, savvy, in-charge former slave, and John (Jarrod M. Smith), a younger, belligerent, law-bending former slave and a contemporary of Caleb.

Jarrod M. Smith, Adam Haas Hunter and Charlie Robinson in THE WHIPPING MAN. Photo by Debora Robinson.
Jarrod M. Smith, Adam Haas Hunter and Charlie Robinson in THE WHIPPING MAN. Photo by Debora Robinson.

Frequently, the religion of the plantation owner was taught to their slaves.  When one adds the ingredient of a shared religion into the mix, in this case Judaism, each character has to reinvent himself in order to survive.   As Simon, Caleb, and John come to grips with their new situations dangerous secrets begin to bubble to the surface threatening to destroy, not only the family and their connected history, but their shared religious faith as well.

This is the third production of “The Whipping Man” I’ve reviewed in the last three years. And two of them have starred Charlie Robinson.  Director Benson and Robinson bring a fresh approach and new vigor to the text and to their collaboration.  Lopez’s play is layered with meaning and insight that is nicely captured by this trio of talented actors.

Robinson’s dignified Simon portrayal is solid, and at times profound.  In the second act, his impassioned, yet cogent, five-minute monologue is a show stopper followed by thunderous applause.

Adam Haas Hunter’s Caleb performance is carefully constructed to maximize his characters’ emotional high and lows.  Jarrod M. Smith as John, delivers the comedy moments as well as the poignant but turbulent undercurrents that are roiling just beneath the surface of what this excellent ensemble cast brings to playwright Lopez’s provocative play.

The technical credits are first rate, as usual, at The Playhouse.  The creative team led by director Benson, renders the plantation’s Main Room in scenes of appropriate ruin and decay in a design by Tom Buderwitz; becoming a visual harbinger of what the country faces in binding up the wounds and after effects of war.  Costume designer Angela Balough Calin, delivers the cast the “outer skins” of their characters in perfect period authenticity. The muted lighting areas designed by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, enhance and heighten the changing on-stage moods.

However, if I had to be picky about the sound designed by Michael Roth, it would be to suggest that rain storms raging outside the front door, do not just instantly disappear or subside once the front door is closed.  Perhaps, the sound could be sneaked down slowly until that effect is audibly accepted by the audience and then fades out completely… just saying.

Bottomline: “The Whipping Man” is a splendid ensemble production that makes for an engaging and thought-provoking evening of theatre.  Artistic Director Sheldon Epps, once again, has his company of players on a roll with a series of winning productions.  Laissez bon temps rouler!

“The Whipping Man” performs at The Pasadena Playhouse and runs through March 1, 2015.

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