Set in April of 1865, Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, onstage now at Raleigh Little Theatre under the direction of Patrick Torres, is a gritty and gripping emotional drama. The intimate show focuses on the intertwined lives of three Jewish men: Caleb (Ryan Ladue), a wounded southern soldier; sagacious Simon (Phillip Bernard Smith), a recently freed slave who has served in Caleb’s home for many years, and young, tempestuous John (Chris Helton), another recently freed slave who has suffered much at the hands of both Caleb and Caleb’s father.
The three men come together, a sort of makeshift and troubled family- though the meaning of that word and many others are called into question by Lopez’s complex script- to observe The Seder on the day after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. It is this- their Seder observance and the revelations that occur within it- as well as the events that transpire in the days leading up to this event that make up the “meat” of this profoundly moving story.
The emotionally-charged action plays out in Caleb’s war-ravaged home, beautifully and realistically rendered through the rustic, vintage-style set design by Miyuki Su. This, coupled with the gentle, perfectly timed lighting touches really serve to make this intimate play all the more tense and immersive, as does Lopez’s very real dialogue. His characters have conversations that bring into question the meaning of faith, heritage, family, and freedom and that make the viewer truly feel for each fully-realized character. Simon’s discussion of the simple dreams he plans to live out as a free man offer some of the most touching and bitterly poignant moments in the show, though there are certainly plenty to go around. In fact, as the show progresses and secrets are slowly revealed, the emotional impact only gets stronger, leaving the viewer feeling emotionally ravaged by the show’s somewhat open ending.
Despite the heavy material, director Torres does manage to work some softer moments, moments of genuine affection and humor, into the production,and his pacing and easy-to-follow action are on-point. Despite the near-constant dialogue and the somewhat-barren set, the production never feels dull. There is always something to look at- multiple things, actually, which is quite a feat with only three actors and scant set-pieces.
Much credit is also owed to the small cast. Smith’s portrayal of likable, strong, and ever-faithful Simon is easily the highlight of the show. His delivery never fails to bring out the complexity of Lopez’s dialogue, and his rendering of Simon is so real and so wonderfully effortless. Ladue also does a solid job as troubled Caleb and really shines during his monologue that opens the second act. And, while Helton does struggle to adequately handle his character’s more emotional moments, he does a good job of bringing John’s youthfulness and vivacity to life.
All in all, this show is truly powerful, fiercely intimate, and near-perfectly executed. It is one that will stay with the viewer long after the metaphorical curtains close and that should lead to a lot of thought.
Raleigh Little Theatre presents THE WHIPPING MAN at 8 p.m. Jan. 14, 3 p.m. Jan. 15, 8 p.m. Jan. 19-21, 3 p.m. Jan. 22, 8 p.m. Jan. 26-28, and 3 p.m. Jan. 29 in the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $24 ($20 students and seniors 62+), except all seats $15 on Sunday, Jan. 15th.
BOX OFFICE: 919-821-3111 or https://raleighlittletheatre.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0Sd000000PKYISEA5.
SHOW: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/16-17/whipping.html. 2016-17 SEASON: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/tickets/memberships.html.
PRESENTER: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/RaleighLittleTheatre, https://twitter.com/RLT1936, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raleigh_Little_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/raleighlittletheatre.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices are available for all shows.
NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22nd, performance.
The Whipping Man (2006 Montclair, NJ and 2011 Off-Broadway play): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/1977/whipping-man-the (Samuel French, Inc.), http://www.matthewlopez.com/plays/whippingman.html (Matthew Lopez’s website), and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/5170 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: https://actorstheatre.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Whipping-Man-Play-Guide.pdf (Actors Theatre of Louisville).
Matthew Lopez (playwright): http://www.matthewlopez.com/ (official website) amd http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/39641 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
Patrick Torres (director): https://www.facebook.com/patrick.torres.585 (Facebook page).
EDITOR’S NOTE: Susie Potter is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer and editor. She is a 2009 graduate of Raleigh’s Meredith College, where she majored in English. She holds graduate degrees in teaching and American literature from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. In addition to her work for Triangle Arts and Entertainment, she is an award-winning author of short fiction. Her works have appeared in The Colton Review, Raleigh Quarterly, Broken Plate Magazine, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, the Chaffey Review, and Existere. To read all of Susie Potter’s Triangle Arts and Entertainment articles and reviews, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/susie-q/. To read more of her writings, click http://www.susiepotter.com and http://www.myspace.com/susiepotter.