“The Whipping Man” is historical fiction penned with strong sense of immediacy. The horrors of slavery and the Civil War are made personal as we witness their effects on the three characters. Playwright Matthew Lopez tackles a seldom-explored aspect of this period: The Confederate family in this story, the DeLeons, are Jewish, and their former slaves, Simon (Derrick Lee Weeden) and John (Antwon D. Mason Jr.), have also adopted their faith. The celebration of Passover, and its significance to the characters, figures prominently in the play.
Even before the action begins, a palpable sense of dread fills the intimate Severson Theatre. Abby Hogan's set uses the small space with incredible economy, evoking the gutted ruin of the once-grand DeLeon house. The wallpaper is smoke-stained and a haze hangs in the air. The landing by the door is crumbling and littered with debris. Lightning flashes in the “sky” beyond the windows, accompanied by ominous rumbles of thunder (lighting and sound design by Jennifer 'Z' Zornow and Elisabeth Weidner, respectively). Downstage, a lonely divan sits by the jagged remains of a wall.
As the Civil War draws to a close, young Confederate Capt. Caleb DeLeon (Matt Koenig) arrives home in Richmond, gravely wounded. However, his family has already evacuated. Caleb staggers into the darkened house and is greeted by a shotgun-wielding Simon, who takes him for an intruder. Then, as the pair recognize one another, the scene becomes a tearful reunion. But the mood changes again when Caleb tells Simon to get him a drink of water -- and it sounds more like a command than a request. The tension in the pause that follows speaks volumes about the characters' complicated relationship.
Things become even more involved when John arrives on the scene. Caleb and John grew up side by side, yet worlds apart. John and Simon's perspectives are nearly as divided, by both age and education -- John is literate, which was considered a crime under slavery.
Koenig plays Caleb with a haunted expression and a voice filled with raw emotion. He hopes that things will go “back to the way they were” now that the war is over. The gangrene-infected leg that he's reluctant to have amputated seems to be a metaphor for his relationship with the past. And just as Simon describes its deadly “poison” creeping its way up to Caleb's heart, so these characters' shared history threatens to take hold of them. All three have closely guarded secrets.
The playwright creates some disturbing moments with the characters' vividly descriptive monologues. Take the amputation of Caleb's leg: Simon explains the procedure in such detail, and Caleb screams with such terror, that we feel as if we've seen more than we really have.
The grim mood is broken up by occasional flashes of humor, which rise naturally from character interaction. Much of it comes from Mason's John, and his attitude toward looting the abandoned homes of Richmond. He insists that he doesn't steal -- he “discovers” things.
Weeden has a kind yet commanding presence as Simon. When he finds out what day it is, he suggests they prepare a traditional Passover Seder from what little they have available. Weeden presides over the Seder ceremony with a great deal of reverence. He also has a very moving singing voice.
Arnold Bueso's costumes feel as genuine as the performances. There's also a moment involving body makeup that's extremely well done.
There's a supporting cast of characters who never appear, but whose presence is felt by the way the trio onstage speak about them. One of these is the titular “whipping man,” who ran a “shop” where the DeLeons took their slaves to be punished. We meet him in a chilling monologue delivered by Mason.
Compliments to Mark Booher -- both as director of this play and artistic director of PCPA -- for bringing such a powerful drama to a Santa Maria stage.