Gothic atmospherics dominate “The Whipping Man,” a historical drama by Matthew Lopez. In a ransacked, rain-drenched Richmond, Va., mansion in April 1865 – the turbulent days just after the Civil War has ended – three men celebrate a strained, unlikely Passover Seder dinner.
In the new Sacramento Theatre Company production of the 2006 play, which has become a regional theater staple, intense, affecting moments abound, but Lopez’s script doesn’t pull as much as one would hope out of his striking setting or the conflicted, ironic history it represents.
The men are well known to one another – circumstances have tied them together for most of their lives. John and Simon (Anthony Simone and Michael Asberry) are former slaves of the once-prosperous DeLeon house and are now scrambling to survive in the chaos of the war’s end.
Looting is rampant in the city, and John is a joyous, resourceful scavenger. The more circumspect Simon protects the house, waiting for the return of the DeLeon patriarch, who has with him Simon’s wife and nearly grown daughter.
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Joining the two men in the dead of night, and dragging a seriously infected, gunshot-wounded leg, is Caleb DeLeon (Sean Patrick Nill), who had fought for the Confederacy and mysteriously returns home broken in just about every way.
Caleb and John are nearly the same age and were raised together, almost like brothers we’re told, except for the one thing: John, exceptionally bright and precocious as a slave child (he can read and write, even though that was forbidden for slaves), was eventually taken to the Whipping Man so he would always know his place.
The DeLeons fancied themselves enlightened slave owners, “We only whipped you when necessary,” Caleb snarls at John when the topic of the punishment comes up.
The DeLeons are also Jewish, and their slaves have been converted or raised as Jews as well. John, who has come across an almanac on one of his forays, determines that Passover has just begun. Simon insists they have Seder dinner with whatever makeshift elements they can find, and it becomes the centerpiece of the mushy second act. They end up with stolen wine, while hardtack, the dense, breadlike confection in soldiers’ ration, stands in for matzo. Uncooked collard greens become the bitter herb in the symbolic, traditional dinner that celebrates and remembers the Jews’ release from slavery in Egypt.
Simon is the most committed to the dinner, though John goes along and Caleb reluctantly participates. It becomes obvious the former slaves’ faith has become more devout than that of the former master, who has lost his belief in God through immersion in war, even as his slaves maintained their beliefs while in forced servitude.
The play roughly debates issues of freedom and subjugation, posing the obvious question of how could Jews who were themselves once slaves turn around and keep people in bondage. “Were we Jews or were we slaves?” John asks Caleb. “Were we the children of Israel or we just the heathen that were round about you? Because we couldn’t be both, that was clear.”
The characters, all a little too tidily, hold a secret that affects another. There are also plot twists, which lean toward more traditional Southern Gothic revelations, and they’re not particularly illuminating in terms of the play’s more interesting dynamics.
Still, director Buddy Butler has a conceived a moody, effective, economically staged production with complimentary performances from his three actors. Nill’s brooding Caleb is mainly restricted to a bed in the center of the set, yet conveys the young soldier’s sense of loss and disillusionment as his world has undergone significant alteration.
Asberry’s resolute Simon provides a depth of conscience for the play, while Simone’s dynamic, unpredictable John has a welcome edge.
John uneasily finds himself on the precipice of a new world. With much to gain, his response to the suddenly unlimited existence in front of him gives the play its life.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.
THE WHIPPING MAN
What: The Matthew Lopez drama, directed by Buddy Butler, stars Michael J. Asberry, Sean Patrick Nill and Anthony Simone
Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, Pollock Stage (1419 H St.)
When: Continues 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 3.
Information: www.sactheatre.org, (916) 443-6722
Time: Two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission.