Clearly, though, Lopez knows how to spin a good yarn, so it’s likely you’ll come away from “The Whipping Man” sated by its intensity and muscular plot mechanics. The trio of actors — Toney, Mark Hairston and Alexander Strain — are smoothly guided by director Jennifer L. Nelson, who receives evocative assistance at Theater J from set designer Daniel Conway and the rest of her capable team.
It’s April 1865 on the spread of the DeLeon clan, a proud family of Virginia Jews who, like all of their Gentile and Jewish neighbors, owned slaves and sent sons off to fight for the rebel cause. After Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, one of them, Strain’s Caleb DeLeon, has returned home, nursing a gangrenous leg wound, to find his family gone and house abandoned, except for Simon and another ex-slave, Hairston’s John, who spends his days scavenging homes for heirlooms that fleeing families left behind.
The dramatic possibilities seem bountiful with characters whose legal connections change faster than their psychic bonds can keep up with. (Other theaters think so, too, as demonstrated by the concurrent production at Baltimore’s CenterStage.) “How is this our problem anymore?” the embittered John says to Simon, as they contemplate a ghastly, primitive excision of Caleb’s festering leg. (The consult over the proposed surgery is a squirm-inducer.) The responsibilities that each of these men — tied by history, emotion and religion — bear for the others become the animating issues of “The Whipping Man,” as the matrix of the relationships on Caleb’s slave-holding estate are laid out.
The play’s toxic mixture of social dominance, affection and submission is reminiscent of Athol Fugard’s resonant apartheid play, “Master Harold and the Boys,” the story of the charged friendship between a white student and two of his family’s black servants. Perhaps the violent upheaval that sets off the events of Lopez’s tale does not allow the characters to reveal themselves with quite the level of humor or subtlety evident in Fugard’s. Still, the abrupt societal realignment taking hold as the piece unfolds gives Lopez’s characters a lot to chew on.
I can see how making the slaveholders Jewish adds a unique element to “The Whipping Man”: The lessons of Passover seem to have been lost on the DeLeons. (Although Toney’s Simon notes that the family was far more humane than most.) And while I can’t dispute the historical basis for Lopez’s choice, I wonder if the harsh light in which the drama bathes the DeLeons — with no countervailing acknowledgment of the anti-Semitism of the time — is the treatment that this fictional family deserves.