In the second act of Matthew Lopez’s startling play “The Whipping Man,” three Jewish Southerners conduct a seder. Two are newly emancipated slaves; the third is their former master’s son.
It is Passover on April 14, 1865 — the day Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Lopez digs deep to explore the ways this night is different from all other nights, and the ways the ramifications of their unusual circumstance affect the three men.
The play’s local premiere at Marin Theatre Company, in a co-production with Virginia Stage Company, is intense, disturbing and at times even cathartic — no doubt for the three excellent actors as well as the audience.
Set in a broken-down Richmond, Va., estate (beautifully designed by Kat Conley), “The Whipping Man” starts out quite dramatically, and it gets increasingly dramatic — and sometimes, under Jasson Minadakis’ otherwise dynamic and tonally astute direction, just this side of melodramatic — as it continues.
Shot and wounded Confederate soldier Caleb (Nicholas Pelczar) staggers into the family mansion in the midst of a raging storm and falls, half-dead from starvation and pain, into the arms of elderly Simon (a particularly powerful L. Peter Callender), the family’s nurturing and dignified head slave.
With few provisions at hand, Simon is the house’s only current occupant.
Caleb’s leg is gangrenous. When another erstwhile family slave, John (Tobie Windham) — who was once Caleb’s boyhood friend — shows up, having looted his way back to the house, the two men set about the grisly, even grotesquely comical task of sawing it off.
That’s just the beginning of an intricate tale, revealed little by little, of the complex, ambivalent relationships, festering over time, among the three men. Each man has painful secrets, each man has his own reasons for seeking shelter in the abandoned mansion.
Playwright Lopez unblinkingly examines some of the challenges, and the moral issues, faced by defeated white Southerners and freed slaves in this era, and the result is thought-provoking and emotionally potent.
At the same time, though, the authorial imagination runs slightly amok.
The characters, as carefully drawn and multidimensional as they are, nevertheless are saddled with a few too many shameful secrets to harbor; those, and a few other plot points, feel like contrivances and tend to undermine the effectiveness of the tragic story that Lopez so empathetically presents.