The heart-wrenching story of three men grappling with slavery and freedom is powerfully explored in the drama “The Whipping Man,” playing at PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre in Santa Maria.
Written by Matthew Lopez, “The Whipping Man” premiered at the Luna Stage Company in New Jersey in 2006. It opened off-Broadway in 2011, winning the John Gassner New Play Award from the New York Outer Critics Circle.
At the end of the Civil War in April 1865, young Confederate officer Caleb DeLeon (Matt Koenig) returns home with a severely wounded leg. His house in war-torn Richmond, Virginia, is considerably damaged from fire and looting.
Two of his former slaves, elder sage Simon (Derrick Lee Weeden) and young, hot-headed John (Antwon D. Mason Jr.), are the only inhabitants. The DeLeons, a prominent Jewish family, evacuated weeks ago during the chaos of the surrender.
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Simon determines that Caleb’s gangrene-ridden leg must be amputated to save his life, and performs the procedure with John’s assistance.
During Caleb’s recovery, Simon encourages the young men to celebrate Passover with a traditional seder. The parallel meaning of this ritual, which commemorates the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt, becomes an emotional release. Caleb, Simon and John struggle with their past roles as master and slave, question their religion and face the reality of a new freedom.
John recalls bitterly when he was sent by his master to a person known as the whipping man for punishment. Simon dreams of buying a home with his wife as a free man, and Caleb describes the brutality of war.
Their stories soon unleash dark family secrets which ultimately threaten to destroy their hope and humanity.
Weeden, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran, delivers a stellar performance. He embodies Simon’s dignity and goodness with a thunderous voice, tender facial expressions and a towering physical presence. A testament to his excellence is a scene in which Simon beautifully describes a brief meeting with Abraham Lincoln.
Mason’s John has endless energy and a seamless swagger that perfectly complements the weary and thoughtful Simon. Koenig richly rounds out the cast as Caleb.
“The Whipping Man” is superbly directed by Mark Booher. Scenic designer Abby Hogan effectively creates the destroyed living room in the DeLeon house with scorched wallpaper and crates as furniture. Costumes designed by Arnold Bueso fit with the 1860s setting.
Also on the creative team is lighting designer Jennifer “Z” Zornow, sound designer Elisabeth Weidner and stage manager Zoia Wiseman. Rabbi Dov Gottesfeld is a creative consultant.
“The Whipping Man” raises tough questions about freedom, faith, family and forgiveness. The future of our humanity lies within the answers.