Raleigh Little Theatre opens 2017 with a grand and magnificent performance of Matthew Lopez's 2006 play, The Whipping Man. On an ingeniously staged set, designed by Miyuki Su, a rain-soaked and badly-wounded Confederate soldier returns to his Richmond, VA home to find it abandoned and in ruins, guarded only by a former slave who still serves the family. Director Patrick Torres has melded three fine performances into a tapestry of antebellum disintegration, as these two former slaves try to care for their former master as they wait for the family to return.
The entirety of The Whipping Man takes place in the once-grand anteroom of the DeLeon home, where Captain Caleb DeLeon (Ryan Ladue) finds not the warm and sumptuous home he once knew, but a burned-out shell. The Union's scorched-earth policy has rendered this once-ornate home a ruin, much like the neighboring homes. John (Chris Helton), a young man who was once a slave here, collects finery from these other abandoned houses and stockpiles it in this cache for his looting. While he is out on one of his forays, Caleb returns home, having ridden in on a horse now dead from carrying him from Appomattox to Richmond. Caleb's leg sports a bullet wound, now over a week old and unattended. He is found by Simon (Phillip Bernard Smith), the patriarch of the slave family that once served this house. Simon now tries to keep the place from suffering the same fate John is giving the surrounding homes.
Simon examines Caleb's wound and diagnoses a severe case of gangrene. If Caleb is to survive his wound, the leg must come off. Caleb screams his objection, but Simon is firm. If the leg does not go, Caleb will die a nasty, slow death. But Caleb refuses to go to the hospital, so Simon must do the deed. Caleb spends the rest of the play convalescing in a makeshift bed at the far end of the room.
Simon is waiting. His wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Sarah, left the house, he believes, with their mistress, Mrs. DeLeon, to seek shelter from the war in a town nearby. He awaits their return. Also returning, hopefully soon, is the family patriarch, who, upon his departure, told Simon that he would bring money for him on his return, enough for Simon to set up his own household. Both these notions are lies. There is no money left, and both Elizabeth and Sarah have been sold. Simon obviously knows nothing of these facts, but John knows them both. John also knows that if Simon were aware, he would leave in search of his family.
In a neighborhood chiefly made up of Christian homes, the DeLeon household is Jewish; as was their custom, the slaves were reared in the faith of their masters. As it happens, this weekend is Passover, and Simon hopes to hold a Seder meal to celebrate the Jews' exodus from Egypt. This turns out to be a celebration that neither John nor Caleb care to celebrate. But, this ritual is a time for truth, and it is truth that will finally destroy these last vestiges of the DeLeon family.
Patrick Torres has cast three uncannily adept actors to portray this trio of a dissolving family. Phillip Bernard Smith and Ryan Ladue are returning to RLT for their second productions; Chris Helton, a Charlotte native, is making his RLT debut. These three could not have been more perfect for their respective roles. Helton portrayed John as a brash, rebellious man who was the kind of slave who would drive a foreman mad; he visited the Whipping Man often. Ladue's Caleb was weary and war-scarred, within as well as without. Smith gave Simon a warm and gentle soul, despite the character's lifetime as a slave.
Director Torres has woven these three disparate characters together in Lopez's masterful first play. The characters' final, predestined dissolution is a microcosm of the destruction of the antebellum South, as surely as Egypt was destroyed by plagues in the time of the Exodus.
RLT brings The Whipping Man to life on the Gaddy-Goodwin stage, as true-to-life as if we had been there in 1865. This cast created a realism that was staggering and handled a difficult, dissolving relationship with finesse and panache. It is a production that deserves your attention.
The Whipping Man continues through Sunday, January 29. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.