Monday, February 17, 2014

The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez

L - R Shawn Savage, Ricco Ross 

By Joe Straw

I grew up in the south, mainly Tennessee, and also spent time with my grandmother and grandfather in northern Georgia. 

There, my relatives still referred to the Civil War, as the War of the Northern Aggressors.

Putting the pieces together.   

Years later – as a tourist in Savannah – a number of tour guides spoke the expression: “…when cotton was king.”

Later - in the day – at the beautiful lush Bonaventure Cemetery – a large Jewish celebration?

Jewish refugees immigrated in 1732 to Savannah?  

And Jewish slave owners?

It was an unrecognized portrait of my southern collective being.   

Pictures. – Narrator

The West Coat Jewish Theatre presents the Los Angeles Premiere of the Whipping Man written by Matthew Lopez and directed Howard Teichman at the Pico Playhouse through April 13, 2014.

The Whipping Man is a wonderful end-of-the-Civil-War drama about a Jewish confederate soldier coming home and having to deal with his former slaves. This play is wonderfully directed by Howard Teichman and performed by a superior cast who will knock your socks off and have you enjoying every moment.  

The play takes places four days after General Robert E. Lee’s April 9th 1865 surrender at Appomattox Court House.

A violent thunderstorm envelops the DeLeon home, a once grand house in Richmond, Virginia. Now it’s dilapidated.  The wallpaper is peeling, and the roof leaking – compliments of munitions explosions.  The living room picture window is boarded up – possibly to keep out looters or other undesirables. A cast iron bed sits dry in the only place that doesn’t leak.

A young man pushes the door open. He stands a dirty, coffin-like shadow, wearing an unrecognizable uniform, too dark to see, obviously hurt, and falls to the floor in excruciating pain.  Crawling to a box to get back on his feet, the pain forces him to scream and because of the pain he momentarily blacks out.

An older man from another part of the house hears the noise, and takes his rifle and lamp to explore God knows what.  He notices the front door open, closes it, and turns around to see a body lying on the floor. And with rifle pointed he wakes the injured man.

“Get that rifle out of my face, old man.” – Younger Man

“Seeing as I’m the one holding it, I think I’ll make the rules.” – Older man

But, the light illuminates as both inch closer together.  

“Simon?  Simon, is that you?” – Younger Man

“Caleb?” – Simon

Simon (Ricco Ross) is happy to greet his former owner Caleb (Shaw Savage) with a hug but he does it with a slight hesitation as Caleb delights in the fact that he is finally home. 

Simon, who is Jewish like his owners, greets him with a blessing for the revival of the dead.

“Baruch atah adonai elohenu melech haolam mechaye hametim.” – Simon

Caleb wants to know where everyone has gone, especially Sarah.  Simon tells him that his wife Lizbeth and his daughter Sarah are with his pa.  He tells Caleb that his mother went to visit her mother in Williamsburg.

Caleb asks where is…? And before he can get it out, Simon tells him that he’s probably on a drunk somewhere.

Caleb then orders Simon to get him some water and suddenly Simon stops, not wanting to move one inch more on this order. But then he thinks better and moves to another room to get the water.

Caleb tries his best to stand and, without making his way completely up, screams.  Rushing into the room, Simon wants to know what all the screaming is about.  Caleb tells him he was wounded a week ago.  Simon suggests a week old untreated wound has a way of killing people.

Simon tells Caleb the war has taken a toll on the town, this house, and most people fled the violence.  He moved to Chimborazo and lived with his ma and the women from the temple, nursing and dressing wounds.

“And (ma) told you to come here and wait for everybody.” – Caleb

“She asked me.” – Simon

Simon looks at Caleb’s wound and discovers that a bullet hole has pierced his left leg.  He gets some whiskey and pours it on the wound, and stops when Caleb starts screaming.

After the pain has subsided Caleb wonders what they have to eat and it’s not much.  The markets not open, everything is dead including the horse he rode in on.

“I had a horse.” – Caleb

“Had?” – Simon

“He’s dead.  Out front.” – Caleb

Well, there’s meat, if they need something to eat.  

Simon looks at the wound and walks into to the kitchen to get rags and as he is in there someone is outside looking through the window.  Caleb screams for help and Simon grabs the rifle and checks but there’s no one there.

Then Simon looks at the wound and tells Caleb he’s got gangrene, but the good news is it’s not above the knee, still, with certitude, the leg has got to come off much to Caleb’s protestations. Naytheless, Simon has to teach Caleb the hard reality of what gangrene does to the human body, and it ain’t pretty.  

Simon needs to clean the wound first and then take Caleb to the hospital.  But Caleb wants none of that, if his leg has to be taken off, and he’s going to die, he wants to die at home, sans leg.   

It’s tough going for Simon and he doesn’t like all this ordering about.

“All these things you’re telling me to do, by right now you need to be asking me to do.” – Simon

And while Simon goes for the rags and whiskey, the intruder opens the door dressed with a mask over his head asking for a Captain DeLeon.  And this man delight in revealing himself as John (Kirk Kelleykahn), a former slave to the DeLeon family.

John has got a bloody bandage around his right hand and with a whiskey bottle in his other hand points to the animal carcass outside the door.

“This your dead horse here?” – John

“It is.” – Caleb

“I don’t know which of the two of you looks worse.” – John

John wants to know about Caleb’s surrender and Caleb wants to know about things going on around Richmond. They share a bottle of whiskey like they’ve done it a million times. Caleb accuses him of stealing the whiskey but John sees it as liberation.

“What do I call you now?” – John

“Call me?” – Caleb

“’Master’ doesn’t quite fit no more.” – John

Caleb says John has never call him that but that doesn’t stop John from rubbing in the results of the war in his face.  When Simon discovers that John is back, Caleb also notices the bandage around John’s hand.

Simon, older and wiser, has got a plan to take Caleb’s leg off.  He also has reasons for sticking around because he says Caleb’s father has promised him money when he gets back and it’s in his interest to keep Caleb alive. Simon enlists John’s help to remove Caleb’s leg and he describes, in detail, just how they are going to do it.

But Simon really doesn’t want to do it.  He’ll bring the tools out from the basement and try to scare Caleb into having them take him to the hospital, but when that doesn’t work, they go into action.

Caleb now has a change of heart and tells them they are not to take the leg off.  But it’s too late as Simon grabs the saw, and with the help of John, they seize the leg, Caleb screaming, thunderstorm raging, a torrential downpour, and three working against each other to help one another.  And with a ferocious discretion Simon starts sawing.

Matthew Lopez, the writer, has written a fascinating and enjoyable play.  He has taken us into a tenebrous situation.  But despite the Civil War, leg amputation, murder and mayhem, this is a very funny play and has numerous comedic elements.  And, like participants musings of a funeral gathering, each character has something in his life he has to get off in order to move on. John puts a burlap bag over his head when he goes out not only because he is a liberator of whiskey and the finer things of life but also because he has committed a crime some would consider heinous. Simon thinks of his family and the money that awaits him when the owner of the house returns.  And Caleb comes home, in a hurry, because he knows that something, or someone is waiting for him. All of the characters need one another in order to survive despite having to set aside the miserable indignities of the past.

I enjoyed every minute of this show.  The acting is superior and the hard work is up on the stage guided by the extremely talented director/producer Howard Teichman. But what are really interesting on stage are the relationships and the interactions between characters. Caleb and John are so much alike in manner plays well with what is discovered near the end.  And Simon is like a father figure to both. And, in the manner of presentation, the moments work to near perfection. The “amputation planning scene” between John and Simon needs a slight adjustment and the life discoveries need more emotional impact.  

L - R Kirk Kelleykahn, Ricco Ross, Shawn Savage

Shawn Savage plays Caleb DeLeon and he appears to have stepped right out of the Civil War.  The look is genuine and the acting is superb. Caleb rides his horse to death for a reason, which is not known until later in the play. He obviously and desperately wants to get back now the war is over despite the bullet hole through his leg. Caleb needs both men to be there, without them he would surely die.   

Ricco Ross is Simon and also does a tremendous job.  There is not a wasted moment in his portrayal, and his pauses are exquisite. Simon has an exceptional temperament despite the history with the family. He waits for his family to come back and for the money so that he can buy a farm.  And taking care of Caleb is one way of taking care of the money, but that aside, he waits mostly for his family until there is a terrible reality revealed.  

Kirk Kelleykahn has a very good look as John.  John is pathetically mendacious and is in a lot of trouble.  The reason he has injured his hand is revealed later in the play, but it’s also the reason he is on edge, because trouble and in particular, Freddy Cole (not seen), an “ol cracker”, is just outside the door.  But now John has embraced indolence, probably because of the outcome of the war. Although he is a liberator, he has to be very careful about being seen outside of the DeLeon house and he needs his counterparts to help him in that regard.   Kelleykahn brings a lot of humor to the role. There are many secrets to hide until the moments are right, and Kelleykahn does a tremendous job letting those secrets slip, one moment at a time.

Bill Froggatt does a tremendous job as the Sound Designer and also served as the Associate Producer.

Jean Himmelstein is also the Associate Producer and Prop Mistress.

The Stage Manager is Priscilla Miranda.

Kurtis Bedford did a fantastic job as the Set Designer.

Michéle Young worked wonders as the Costume Designer making the costumes look authentic.

Ellen Monocroussos is the Lighting Designer and the candles were a marvelous touch.

Kelsey Boutte is the Make Up Artist.  The bullet hole, gangrene, and whipping scars were very well done.

Jessica Erin Bennett is the Fight Choreographer.

And Michael Lamont is the Photographer.

Run!  Run!  Run!  And take someone who loves the history of the Civil War.

TICKET INFO: Reserve online at or call (323) 821-2449.

LOCATION: The Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Boulevard, in Los Angeles, 90064.

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