There isn't a great deal of new ground staked in Matthew Lopez's 2006 play The Whipping Man. The Civil War was America's worst nightmare, slavery its greatest evil, and no one — free, enslaved, North or South — emerged unscarred.
The only fresh territory is that the three men in the play are all Jewish: one a captain in the Confederacy, plus two former slaves whom his family owned. It's after Appomattox, in the last days of the war, and they've assembled in the family's former grand manor in Richmond, Virginia, waiting for something to emerge from the ashes that will provide a hint of what the future holds.
Each of the men harbors secrets that, if exposed, could tip the already fragile post-Emancipation dynamic among them into dangerous territory. And while those secrets aren't major surprises, the way Lopez lays out the action, and Martin Benson guides his actors, makes the piece compelling, if not altogether satisfying.
Place and religion are the ties that bind the three. Simon (a superb Charlie Robinson) is an older former slave with some loyalty to the family that shared its faith with him. John (a dynamic Jarrod M. Smith) is a younger slave with far less loyalty and more simmering anger. Caleb, the captain, is played by Adam Haas Hunter, who isn't given much to work with. The play works best in revealing the inner struggles of each within the context of the daunting reality that, though far different, each still needs the others to survive.
Ultimately, this isn't a play about slavery or religion. It's a play about family — a family dealing with physical and psychic wreckage, which, like all families big and small in moments of crisis, must choose whether to fragment or stand together in some kind of solidarity, as shaky as that ground may be.
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South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; through Jan. 25. (714) 708-5555, scr.org. The show moves to the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Feb. 3-March 1.
(626) 356-7529, pasadenaplayhouse.org.
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