They say it’s the dark tales that start out on stormy nights and this story is no exception. Centerstage’s production of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Manis a chilling tale of justice and freedom come to light at the end of the American Civil War. Three Jewish men – two former slaves and their former owner, a Confederate Soldier, return to their home, which has been ransacked by looters and thieves as the war has wound down. They find umbrage in the company of each other as their convoluted pasts unravel around a makeshift Passover Seder Dinner. With plans for the future uncertain, secrets revealed, and a little levity to even out the tone of the drama; this show is a historical masterpiece, unearthing a story from our war-torn past that is bound to fascinate audiences everywhere.
What remains of the derelict manor home is what truly transports the audience back to the aftermath of April 1865. Scenic Designer Neil Patel creates the perfect shell of what was once a glorious home now decrepit and falling down around itself. There is a gaping hole in the ceiling at the top of the staircase, through which it rains periodically when the storm outside is raging. The doors and molding of the house are seared with scorches from a fire and warping away from the walls. The staircase itself is busted and unstable making the house look dangerous; a true run-down shelter for three refugees each finding their own brand of comfort in what’s left of the home. And the storm that takes place through the duration of the show is an incredible special effect created between the efforts of Patel, Sound Designer Shane Rettig and Lighting Designer Michelle Habeck. You can see the rain sluicing down the windows and when the front door is opened Rettig ensures that sound of the storm is heightened and then dampened again when the door is closed. It’s always an incredible sight to see a full blown rainstorm happening indoors and this particular storm places the finishing touches on the tense mood of the story.
Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah takes over the director’s chair for this production, working closely with Dialect Consultant Gillian Lane-Plescia to hone the sound of three men in Richmond, Virginia at the time of the Civil War, differentiating well between the two slave characters and the one soldier character. Kwei-Armah gives excellent guidance on the balance between tense moments and the comical levity that filters through in the dialogue exchanged between the characters, particularly between Simon and Caleb.
There is a raw truth behind the performances of these three actors who work extremely well together to convey their realities to the audience. Caleb (Michael Micalizzi) is saddled with a severe leg injury from the beginning and he actualizes this in all of his movements. Micalizzi makes his injury convincing, through sheer agony and gut-wrenching screams terrifying the audience. He grits his teeth, grunts and groans like a man stricken with pain so severe that your heart bleeds for him. The stresses of the war are etched into his face and carried in his physicality throughout the show.
The show revolves around descriptions of processes as these arise frequently in the text. Micalizzi finds his in the opening of Act II, reading a letter that he had written to his love while in the war. Simon (Kevyn Morrow) has a similar if more gruesome descriptive process as he vividly details the steps for how gangrene can eat through ones body, his face twisting into putrid disgust as he then presents the steps of how to amputate a gangrenous leg.
John’s (Johnny Ramey) descriptive instructions are perhaps the most haunting as he tells us, almost in slow motion, the process of being sent to the Whipping Man. In great detail he makes the audience aware of what it smelled like, what the whipping man smelled like, everything he saw, everything he felt; a truly gritty and grounded performance. Ramey’s portrayal of his time spent with the whipping man is a fierce moment layered with tension using his body’s sounds to reenact those moments of agony he endured. This is one of the most stunning moments in the show until a major revelation by Simon at the end of the play.
These three actors master the craft of letting the tones of their voices carry the deep seeded emotions of memory out to the audience, creating a truly stunning performance to watch.
Of course the show does have some comic moments, mostly in the dialogue as Morrow tries to lighten the serious situations. The comic timing is there and adds the right level of interruptions to the otherwise dense and serious drama.
The Whipping Man is It is an incredible exploration into the factors of religious differentiation at the time of the Civil War as well as faith guiding the lost – like Moses guiding the slaves out of Egypt. Centerstage’s powerful production – filled with mesmerizing performances – is an experience you do not want to miss, especially during this time of year.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
Watch a short video preview of The Whipping Man.