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Theater review: 'The Whipping Man' at the Old Globe

May 17, 2010 |  5:15 pm

WhippingMan SAN DIEGO -- The story resembles something from the Old Testament or from the Tanakh. It involves a prophet, of sorts, and two young men who could greatly benefit from this wise elder's ideas about morality, compassion and mutual respect. In a momentous but unsettled time, these men – and untold others like them – will help to shape a nation's future.

Such is the essence of "The Whipping Man," a powerful new play by Matthew Lopez, being given its West Coast premiere by the Old Globe.

The play springs from Lopez's observation that Passover in April 1865 began the day after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. On this, Lopez hinges a tale about a young Jewish Confederate soldier who returns, wounded, to his family home in Richmond, Va. He won't last the week unless he confronts a legacy of division and finds a new way forward. And beyond that, he won't fully understand his faith – or his nation – until he grasps the notions of freedom and equality that resonate at their core.

Guiding young Caleb – tense and cautious, yet maturing by the moment, as played by Mark J. Sullivan – is one of the family's former slaves, Simon. With experience lining his face and age graying his beard, Charlie Robinson is every inch the Everyman prophet that the story suggests.

War has rotted the once-grand home, symbolism that is viscerally evoked by Robert Mark Morgan's design for this in-the-round staging. Simon and Caleb are joined there by John, a former slave who is Caleb's age. Avery Glymph exudes the fierce intelligence of a young man who has always challenged the system and paid a horrific price for it (hence the play's rather gruesome title).

The play comes down to three people talking, but director Giovanna Sardelli keeps the action so grounded in emotional truth that it never feels static. As events build toward the story's centerpiece – a Passover Seder – Lap Chi Chu's lighting brightens and turns honey-gold.

Some of the storytelling feels a bit rushed, but then, Lopez has a lot to say in a short span of time. The 33-year-old playwright is not one you're likely to have encountered before, but his work has been developed or produced by some of the nation's top regional companies, and he will spend two years in residence at the Old Globe.  

One of his central conceits here, which he has admitted he's had trouble documenting, is that Simon and John have been brought up in their owner's religion, and therefore practice Judaism. However faithful this may or may not be to history, it leads to larger truths. Jews "talk with God, we wrestle with him," Simon explains to the younger men. "Sometimes we even argue with him. But we never stop asking, looking, hoping for answers."

Words for all of us, in a still deeply divided nation, to live by.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"The Whipping Man," the Old Globe's Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 13. $29 to $62. (619) 234-5623 or www.theoldglobe.org. Running time: 2 hours.

Photo: Charlie Robinson, left, and Mark J. Sullivan in "The Whipping Man" at the Old Globe. Credit: Craig Schwartz.

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