Chicago Theater Review: THE WHIPPING MAN (Northlight Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 27, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Of the 150,000 Jews who lived in the U.S during the Civil War, twice as many (6,000) fought for the Union as for the Confederacy. Less well-known is the fact that hundreds of Southern Jews owned, sold, bought and interbred with slaves: One minority in effect profited from the miseries of another. A three-character drama that makes more connections than its small cast suggests, Matthew Lopez’ The Whipping Man examines this sub-bondage with compassion and concern. In the interest of turning a small-scale, domestic tale of enslavement into a bigger picture, Lopez may compress into contrivance (and out of context) certain ironic connections within the Jewish population and between masters and slaves, but persuasively shaped by Kimberly Senior at Northlight Theatre it’s an unsung story well worth seeing and remembering.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of The Whipping Man at Northlight Theatre in Skokie (Chicago)

Delivering one story to stand for many more, Lopez imagines a family reunion of sorts in April, 1865. Caleb DeLeon (Derek Gaspar), a wounded Confederate deserter, returns to the ruins of a grand home in Richmond, the Confederate capital. The DeLeons were a prominent family of the Deep South who played prominent roles in the four-year Confederacy; now, Caleb is back in the manse – a sort of townhouse “Tara” – that sheltered his once proud family. Having abandoned his faith after all he saw in the terrible siege of Petersburg, Caleb is surprised to find that two former slaves, both brought up by Caleb’s father as observing Jews, have stayed behind to protect, or at least shelter in, the great house.

Even enjoying this new and somewhat unsettling freedom, Simon (Tim Edward Rhoze) remains faithful to his trust, but younger, independent John (Sean Parris), who was taught to read by the DeLeons, has taken advantage of the Union conquest to scavenge for books and treasures among the deserted mansions.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of The Whipping Man at Northlight Theatre in Skokie (Chicago)Simon, ever the Good Samaritan, immediately cares for Caleb’s bullet-ridden right leg, eventually amputating it to save his body from gangrene. After this dramatic and life-saving good deed, the play settles down – and, with hardtack serving as the sacred meal, the three Jews conduct a still-traditional Seder (ironically, on the Saturday that news of Lincoln’s assassination reaches them).

As they recreate a past ritual, these survivors also confront the newly emancipated world that a Union victory has ushered in. Caleb must answer Simon’s question: How, when Leviticus forbids Jews to hold any slaves but the heathen, his family could have made chattels of their co-religionists?: “Were we Jews or were we slaves?” Younger ex-slave John recalls how when he was fiercely punished by the fearsome “whipping man” for some minor infraction, Caleb, with whom he had grown up and who was like a brother to him (“two peas in a pod”), had asked to whip him too, if only because he could. Both remember that the DeLeon patriarch promised them money if they were ever freed, a reparation that won’t happen now.

Lopez intends to show how, more than they know, these three really are a family. Caleb, stranded in his ravaged home by his lost limb, is implicated in the unexplained disappearance of Simon’s wife and daughter. John is caught up in a retributive murder against his former torturer.  Simon leaves to find his family. The future looks grim for all concerned, but the past was a lie deserving destruction.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of The Whipping Man at Northlight Theatre in Skokie (Chicago)

For all the questions the playwright raises through his characters, he never asks Caleb to explain, let alone, defend enslaving those closest to him; perhaps because any answer would make us hate him. Instead, Lopez wants us to understand, if not forgive. Based on her eloquent direction, so does Ms. Senior. And ultimately, through Rhoze’s eloquent and noble Simon, Parris’s angry and anarchic John, and Gaspar’s haunted heir, we do as well.

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Whipping Man
Northlight Theatre
9501 Skokie Blvd in Skokie
ends on February 24, 2013
for tickets, call 847.673.6300 or visit Northlight Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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