Regional theater companies seem to find something appealing about “The Whipping Man,” Matthew Lopez’s Civil War drama about a Jewish Confederate soldier’s uneasy homecoming reunion with two of his father’s former slaves who were also brought up in the Jewish faith. Originally developed at the Luna Stage Company in Montclair, N.J., the play has been produced at the Barrington Stage Company, Penumbra Theater Company and the Old Globe. But the storytelling never rises above melodrama, and even in Doug Hughes’ well-mounted and sincerely acted production for Manhattan Theater Club, the nature of the play’s appeal remains a mystery.
In the first scene of this contrived drama, a man’s gangrenous leg is sawed off. In the second scene, the amateur surgeon wipes up the blood. In the third scene, the patient emerges remarkably refreshed from his ordeal.
Must we go on?
Realistic behavior may not be the scribe’s strong suit, but it’s hard to identify any dramatic element that is. Except, perhaps, for vivid scene-setting.
The ruined shell of a house in Richmond that a Confederate officer crawls back to at the end of the war is nothing like the gracious family home he left when he went off to fight. A total ruin in John Lee Beatty’s somber set, its rooms have been stripped bare by looters and most of its structural parts torn up for firewood. The floors are torn up, the staircase is broken, and the rain is pouring through the open roof.
Now, that’s a promising setting for a play about the impact of the war on the people who used to live in this house.
Caleb DeLeon (Jay Wilkison), the son of the rich Jewish family that owns this ruin, has returned from the battlefield battered in body and soul. (He’s the one who has his leg amputated.) Simon (Andre Braugher), a former household slave, has come back to guard what’s left of the family property. (He’s the one with the saw.) John (Andre Holland), a former slave raised as Caleb’s companion, has turned thief and is using his old home to store his loot. (He stole the candles to light the operation.)
Although drawn to type and forced into melodramatic behavior, these are interesting characters who each experienced the war in a different way. And for a while the play goes along just fine on the strength of their individual narratives.
Wilkison’s Caleb speaks to the horrors of the battlefield and Holland catches the edge of violence in John’s declarations of freedom. But Simon is the only one of these men who seems to have given some thought to the future and grasped the magnitude of emancipation — for which he gives thanks by preparing a Seder to celebrate Passover.
Again, Lopez does a good job of scene-setting, aided in no small part by Ben Stanton’s atmospheric lighting design. The humble Passover is genuinely moving and Braugher captures the moment with his thrilling evocation of Simon’s pride and joy and hope. Rapping out the cadences of the ritual prayers, he delivers the transcendent emotions of this powerful scene.
There does come a point, though, when all the scene setting must pay off in conflict and action. But all that Lopez can come up with are ugly revelations and bitter recriminations about past events involving characters we’ve never met. Which is a bit like fighting the war all over again — a lost cause and entirely beside the point.