Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Whipping Man at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre

In the first 120 seconds of The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez,  a wounded Confederate soldier collapses inside the door of a derelict ante-bellum home and screams out some names.  A black man cautiously advances from a back room carrying a rifle and lantern.  When he realizes that the soldier is a young man of the household, he kneels, lays his hand on the young man's head, and pronounces a blessing in Hebrew, "Baruch Adonai...." 

It's disorienting to juxtapose Jewish tradition with our Civil War expectations, and instantly moving.  The rest of the play unpacks that moment. Plotwise, we learn who those names are, and what has happened to them.  Themewise, the idea of Southern Jews climaxes in a Seder.

We get highly involved with these characters, thanks to the acting of Jeremy Aggers (Caleb, the soldier), Keith Randolph Smith (Simon, the black man),  Another character who first appears as a truly scary apparition through a window, turns out to be comic relief and also catalyst for truth-telling.   He's "John," played by an appealing young local actor John Stewart.

We are embraced by the set, as the beams of the ceiling stretch out over us; and we embrace these three men as they discover the secrets that each is hiding at the start.

The seder itself is a highpoint.  Improvised from rough wartime resources, this ceremonial meal becomes a celebration of release from slavery.  The takeaway moment follows when John, unable to make a choice, is paralyzed with fear.  This is freedom, his mentor Simon says.  And it's not easy. 

Two other moments stand out, because they are so theatrical, and happen almost out of time.  Late in the show we see a kind of flashback with the soldier Caleb standing (he loses a leg in an early scene that induced audible gasps and squirming early in the show), reciting a letter to his beloved, written in the grandiloquent prose of those 19th century letters.  Another moment is occasioned by the fact that Passover in 1865 was also the Good Friday of Abe Lincoln's assassination. Simon re-enacts his  encounter with Lincoln.  Simon bowed; Lincoln bowed. 

The only thing not to like about the show is its title.  Yes, it relates to a revelation in the plot.  But isn't there something that could relate somehow to the freedom, choice, and Passover? 

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