Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 7, 2012

The Whipping Man

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through March 18, 2012
by Shera Cohen

Applause goes to Hartford Stage for mounting new plays by young writers – in this case, “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez. Bravos are also deserved by the cast of three men who impart compassion, rivalry, hatred, and compliance to their characters. This play has a lot going for it.

The fault, however, lies in the script. A suggestion would be for the playwright to return to the computer. While each character is fully human, the sequences of their life events goes astray, sometimes at an irregular pace to stress the unimportant more than what is important.

The time is ante-bellum Civil War. The specific time is Passover. The place is a destroyed Southern Mansion. It might seem odd that the white soldier is Jewish, not to mention that his two slaves were brought up Jewish. Needless to say, religion plays a large underlining significance. The analogy between Moses and Jewish slavery and Lincoln and black slavery is perhaps novel at first thought, but the subject belabors itself throughout the play’s 90-minutes.

Josh Landay (Caleb, the soldier) delivers true angst to his character as slave owner. Leon Addison Brown (Simon, the older slave – now a free man) shows wisdom as he often sits exactly center stage facing the audience. Che Ayende (John, the younger former slave) sasses with a bravado that works perfectly. One particularly long and gritty scene with the three men onstage together, is acting and direction at its best. Given another play to star in, the trio could have blown the audience away.

Hana S. Sharif also faces some problems in directing. Oftentimes the language is straight out of the 21st century, therefore difficult to deal with. For the most part, Sharif moves her actors about realistically. Without giving a spoiler, it is important to say that after Caleb deals with an especially excruciating physical problem, his attitude and pain become blasé.

Not enough praise can be given to set designer Andromache Chalfant and lighting designer Marcus Doshi. From the play’s first moment to the finale, this duo’s work magically creates a dark and haunting period in the lives of the characters and their time in history.