The Whipping Man

Powerfully explores emancipation's strains through impressive acting and stagecraft.

In Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man,” the Confederacy’s surrender finds returning rebel soldier Caleb DeLeon (Mark J. Sullivan) once more shouting orders in the burnt-out Virginia family manse, but the antebellum tables have definitely turned, and the former slaves still on the premises have other ideas. Without fully encompassing the themes it raises, “The Whipping Man” powerfully explores emancipation’s strains through impressive acting and stagecraft in the Old Globe’s arena space.

The Whipping Man

Lopez’s vision of Reconstruction is multilayered and credible. Though grizzled Simon (Charlie Robinson) and sardonic scrounger John (Avery Glymph) are understandably eager to test out their freedom wings, removed shackles have no effect on more indelible psychic bonds, not least of which is the Jewish faith the DeLeons passed on to their former property.

Yet self-interest rather than tribal loyalty persuades them to tend to Caleb’s gangrenous leg (harrowingly staged by Giovanna Sardelli): Reward will be in the offing when, and if, old man DeLeon returns with Simon’s wife and daughters in tow. For now, it’s time for Passover’s celebration of the chosen people’s liberation — on a night Abraham Lincoln will go to the theater, coincidentally enough.

Since “The Whipping Man” plays a mostly waiting game, some forward momentum is sacrificed as the men lie around spouting exposition and gradually revealing long-held secrets. Lopez oddly leaves open the intriguing questions of how the DeLeons’ Judaism originally caught on in the slave quarters and why it retains its hold.

Equally puzzlingly, he never raises the paradox of Jews as slave owners, bargainers in flesh who condemned human bondage at every Sabbath meal. While Simon and John duet on “Go Down, Moses” as Caleb lies there a living representative of wicked Pharaoh, the family’s hypocrisy and culpability are, no pun intended, passed over.

These missed opportunities take nothing away from the strength of what’s there, as the characters’ conflicts actually deepen over time.

Their makeshift seder is more moving than the average real-life Pesach feast, with Robinson exuding a Biblical patriarch’s moral authority as he indicts the younger men’s continued slavery: “Bein’ free means more than just broken chains, you know that, right? It means anything that breaks your spirit or muddies your mind….How deeply those enslavements have scarred the world!”

Robinson’s low-key authenticity is downright thrilling, as is Glymph’s portrait of a hothead whose choices are limited by calculation and fear. Sullivan offers sturdy support in a less-showy role keeping him on his back throughout.

Sardelli’s meticulous pacing is complemented by an impeccable physical production, Robert Mark Morgan evoking the Confederacy’s shattered grandeur with only a few set pieces. Jill BC DuBoff’s rain sounds serve as a constant reminder of gloom without, while Lap Chi Chu’s lighting offers poetic commentary on the fires within.

The Whipping Man

Old Globe, San Diego; 250 seats; $62 top

  • Production: An Old Globe presentation of a play in two acts by Matthew Lopez. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli.
  • Crew: Sets, Robert Mark Morgan; costumes, Denitsa D. Bliznakova; lighting, Lap Chi Chu; sound, Jill BC Du Boff; stage manager, Diana Moser. Opened May 13, 2010. Reviewed May 19. Runs through June 13. Running time: 2 HOURS
  • Cast: John - Avery Glymph Simon - Charlie Robinson Caleb - Mark J. Sullivan
  • Music By: