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Jane Enkin Reviews WJT's The Whipping Man: Exciting Driving Drama

by Jane Enkin May 5, 2017

The Whipping Man 

Winnipeg Jewish Theatre

May 4 – 14, 2017

By Jane Enkin

Jane Enkin Music and Story at janeenkinmusic.com

 

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.”

Robert Frost

 

Questions of identity and the meaning of home are explored in Matthew Lopez’ exciting, driving drama The Whipping Man. Director Ari Weinberg keeps the intensity and concentration high in this passionate interaction between three men in war-ravaged Richmond, Virginia.

The play is set in the days immediately after the Civil War.  Caleb, a young, wounded Confederate soldier, returns home to find his parents absent, their grand house ransacked and ruined. The fine set by Brian Perchaluk shows this desolation. In scenes that are sometimes painful to watch and hear, we witness his relationship with Simon and John, his father’s former slaves.

Early on, we learn that all three men were raised Jewish, and in many ways their Jewish identity is casual and comes naturally to them.  Each confronts that identity in different ways, however.  John’s lifelong scholarly examination of Torah leads him to challenge the deep dissonance between being a Jew and being owned by Jews. Simon, older than the others, has no doubts about his Judaism and the power of prayer, but as an audience we notice the limits of his capacities as a Jewish man – strikingly, the family that raised him as a Jew forbade him the literacy in English and Hebrew that most of us take for granted as a basic Jewish value.  Caleb, in a way that is equally striking, never takes any issue with the idea of Jews owning slaves – it was clearly normal in his community, and he clearly identifies as “white” and “wealthy” at least as much as he identifies as “Jewish.”  But the religious faith Caleb took for granted is shattered by his experiences at the front.

Each man clings to a concept of home, dealing with both tenderness and pain with the history of the family, the house, the Confederacy and the country as a whole. The play gives a glimpse into the intimate and even affectionate relationships among house slaves and their owners, very different from the more distant relationships on plantations.  This is one of the many aspects of life in the south before and during the Civil War that the playwright, the director and the actors researched.  Jews in the South were urban, of Spanish-Portuguese Sephardi descent, and owned small numbers of slaves whom they knew well.  At the same time, the actors never slip into sentimentality, and we are kept aware of the strict separation and abusive power that were also a part of this dynamic. Memory is a slippery thing; the characters tell changing stories about the way things used to be in their home.

The play is thought-provoking and intellectually challenging, yet it is also stuffed with plot events, both on-stage and off.  Each character bears many secrets, many revealed and a few still only hinted at by the play’s end. Emotions are fiery; the play is often loud and violently passionate. There are also welcome moments of comedy in the play, and moments of warmth, although they are often quickly undercut by new revelations.

Occasionally, the playwright falls into the trap of using his characters as mouth-pieces for Jewish ideas (the importance of questions in the culture), ideas of freedom, or retellings of (admittedly gripping) experiences of slavery and war.  For the most part, however, the characters are well-drawn individuals, with interesting back stories and dreams.

As Caleb, Jesse Nerenberg effectively constructs a character who is refined and soft-spoken, but who easily falls into old habits of issuing commands as he did as a privileged, slave-owning child. He is suitably chastened whenever he is firmly put in his place by the men who no longer answer to him as slaves. Nerenberg’s moments of emotional anguish are harrowing. This is a rich, complex performance.

Christopher Allen’s John is the most contemporary sounding character of the three.  The actor told me that he feels John’s literacy and perceptiveness make him “ahead of his time.”  Allen’s performance is great fun to watch, as he alternates between the extravagant, expansive lounging of a newly free man and the quicksilver motion of a trickster.

Ray Strachan’s Simon holds the gravitas that grounds the play.  The actor said that he doesn’t do research, he simply trusts the script and director – perhaps that accounts for his clear, beautiful characterization. His performance is restrained and utterly convincing – we feel him as a mentsh, perhaps a tzadik, a person who revels in gratitude and praise, but also as a worn-down man who had never rebelled coming into a new consciousness as a free man. Because Caleb perceives Simon to be the same as he was before the war, it falls to the older man to affirm the ways that things have changed. Strachan’s gentle, stern clarity is thrilling.

Strachan did, by the way, attend his first seder in preparation for the play. The freedom modelled in the Torah’s narrative is at the beating heart of this play, but with this skillful production our hindsight is awakened; it can be painful to hear these characters express their hopes, knowing the events of the decades that followed the Civil War and the challenges to freedom in the world in our own time.


 
 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.