"Were we Jews . . . or were we slaves?"
That question is asked by John, a young black man raised as a Jew by the observant Southern slave owners to whom he recently belonged. In Matthew Lopez's powerful, intense drama The Whipping Man at Mill Valley's Marin Theatre Company, faith, family and the scars of slavery are just some of the many ties that bind three men together at a singular time in America's history.
It is Passover, April of 1865, in Richmond, Va., just days after the Emancipation Proclamation. John (a first-rate Tobie Windham), seeking shelter in the ruins of the looted and abandoned home he once served in, is a mix of fear and resentment, the opposite of the older Simon (L. Peter Callender, astonishing), who also served in the house. Kinder and wiser, now cautiously optimistic about his future as a free man, Simon awaits the return of his former master, who escaped the sacking of Richmond (by Union soldiers), taking Simon's wife and teenage daughter with him. With mixed motivations, John and Simon are caring for Caleb (Nicholas Pelczar), the master's Confederate soldier son, grievously wounded with a gangrenous leg, his faith in the Torah shattered after years on the battlefield and the defeat of the Confederacy.
It's a setup ripe with dramatic and philosophical possibilities. Playwright Lopez takes advantage of every one of them, never letting up on the intensity and emotion of the situation.
There is an artfully graphic onstage amputation, made more powerful following Simon's gorgeously crafted description of the procedure to come. John, understandably angry and confused about his identity as a Jewish slave, delivers a riveting, percussive description of being sent as a boy to the whipping man, and the lessons he learned there about the divisions between him and his white owners. Most potently, there is a movingly improvised Passover Seder, cobbled together from scraps and stolen provisions, two freed slaves and their former master uncomfortably (and powerfully) recalling their ancestors' freedom from bondage in Egypt.
Directed by Jasson Minadakis with tremendous heart and impressive attention to detail, the play was co-produced with the Virginia Stage Company, where it ran last month.
Secrets, large and small, are revealed over the course of the two-hour play, and while some moments stray toward the predictable and the melodramatic, Lopez's boldly told tale is easily one of the best shows of the season, packed with challenging ideas and questions that just might reverberate in your mind for days.
Rating (out of 5): ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
'The Whipping Man' runs Tuesday–Sunday through April 28 at Marin Theatre Company. 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Times vary. $36–$57. 415.388.5208.