It may seem incredible that, nearly 150 years after Appomattox, there might still be any untold Civil War stories worth telling, but playwright Matthew Lopez has uncorked a lulu: Not only were there Jews living in the antebellum South, but a few of them were also slaveholders.
The Whipping Man – Lopez's engaging, 2006 stab at resurrecting the venerable American history play, now having its L.A. premiere at Pico Playhouse – looks at one such household at the precise moment in 1865 when the question of what is versus what might have been was fatefully decided by an actor's bullet at Ford's Theater.
]Against that backdrop is set the story of a Richmond Jewish family whose wounded son, Caleb (Shawn Savage), returns from the wars to find their home abandoned but for the faithful – and newly emancipated – house slave and observant Jew, Simon (Ricco Ross), and Caleb's rebellious former childhood playmate, the ex-slave John (Kirk Kelleykahn).
With the imminent new order in the balance, the three men struggle to find accommodation, drawn together by their common faith but divided by their very different relations to the brutality and injustices of the recent past.
If Lopez's somewhat fusty dramaturgy errs on the side of the overly schematic, a powerful ensemble (particularly Ross, in a star-making turn) under Howard Teichman's effective direction decisively mutes such complaints into mere quibbles.
West Coast Jewish Theatre, Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Cheviot Hills; through April 13. (323) 821-2449, wcjt.org.