Review by Sharlene Hartman
ELLENVILLE, NY (October 7, 2015) — What would you say if someone offered you the opportunity to travel back in time? The place would be Richmond Virginia, the time April 13th, 14th and 15th of 1865, the end of the Civil War. Robert E. Lee has surrendered at Appomattox and the South has fallen. You will be guaranteed comfortable transport and can return any time you wish. You will have the opportunity to keep a safe distance yet watch a very unusual, mostly historical, highly riveting situation. I am offering you this opportunity; All that is needed is a ticket to Shadowland Theatre’s simply wonderful production of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man.
To say “I loved this play and this production,” is an understatement. I think Shadowland has brought a very important theatrical event to Ellenville, New York. If you LOVE superb theatre with great characters, live in the area or are within a 2-hour drive, I highly suggest you go. You will find yourself magically transported back to a stormy Spring of 1865. The sound effects, the lighting, the set, costumes, a magnificent script, delicious dialog and the actors; pull it all together to support this time travel. Most importantly, you will bear witness to the social revolution brought upon The South, as the civil war concludes. You will also see forgiveness & redemption, and that with freedom comes great responsibility. Major kudos to Artistic Director Brendan Burke, for not only bringing this play to Shadowland , but for directing such a jewel.
As the play opens, Caleb, played realistically by Justin Pietropaolo, a young wounded confederate soldier enters a home in ruins. We are quickly treated to the arrival of Simon, the delightful Cortez Nance Jr., and learn that Caleb has come back to his family home, which is now being guarded by Simon, the long time family slave.
When Caleb wonders what has happened to the house, Simon tells him “the same thing that happened to all the other houses.” He asks where the furniture went, “stolen” says Simon, “by who?” asks Caleb, “people” answers Simon. We learn that there have been fires and that artillery shells took off most of the roof; Simon doesn’t even go upstairs anymore. “The Yanks did that?” asked Caleb. “No! You boys did that,” answers Simon. And then we learn that all there is left to eat are carrots, collards, cornmeal and Caleb’s dead horse.
The playing field is now even, but the tension between Simon and Caleb is palatable, as old habits, things like telling someone to do something rather than asking, surface. And this is not really a good time for Caleb to fall into his entitled, “Master” mode, because Simon is tending to his wounded leg, which needs amputation. Simon it turns out had been helping out in the field hospital tents and has learned a thing or two about medicine.
Enter John, played with spunk, drunk and attitude by Anthony Wills Jr., the younger former house slave. He had been raised along side Caleb until an unfortunate situation happened, a situation that provides the play with its title. John has been out and about looting the abandoned homes in the area. But he likes to think of it as an opportunity to shop. John loves shopping for increasingly fancy outfits, collecting liquor and books (he taught himself how to read) and relishes the opportunity to just “own” something. It is through John that we learn most of the family secrets; he just isn’t as polite as Simon and increasingly inebriated. And as he and Caleb bicker, words and knowledge are used as weapons.
The Playwright & Story
Matthew Lopez has created an absolutely fascinating story; the fall of The South, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and then there are all those family secrets. But one of the more unusual and interesting plot points is the fact that Caleb’s family was Jewish, they had raised their slaves to be practicing Jews. So, since this story takes place during Passover, there is a makeshift Seder led by Simon. I thought it was truly a beautiful part of the story, and I’m not Jewish.
I was surprised to discover that Lopez was in his 20’s when he wrote the play. He is a very gifted writer and filled it with many rich details. In an interview from 2010 Lopez said: “In my research, I discovered that Passover began the day after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. It gave me goosebumps to realize that the ancient tradition of commemorating the Exodus from Egypt was occurring at the same time a new American exodus was happening…I knew instantly I wanted a scene in the play where a recently freed slave performs a Seder. The only believable way for that to happen would be for the slave to be Jewish. And, given that most African Americans are Christian because most slave-owners were Christian, that meant his owner would likely have to be Jewish, as well.”
Sermon Simon, As He Is Called
I fell in platonic love with the character of Simon. He drives the play. He is the type of man that thinks before he acts, methodical, strong but kind, positive, a forgiving man and one of faith; the type of human being that makes you feel safe just being around them. Simon is the type of person you’d want to be with in a crisis situation. And Mr. Nance Jr. is wonderful, so sincere, so perfect for the role. He caused me to choke up more than once, and he sings too. Lopez has written some very smart dialogue for him. One of my favorite phases was when he told John; “You could put all the things you know, inside the things you don’t, and still have room for more.” There are so many more snippets I want to mention, but I don’t want to rob you of the joy you’ll get when hearing them for the first time.
You’ve Got To Go
I loved the rhythmic music between scenes, the sound and look of the rain, I loved the actors, my trip back in time, I simply I LOVED this play. And I hope you take advantage of the opportunity to experience it.
A special thanks to Sound Designer Jeff Knapp, for all that terrific ambience; The great lighting (glistening rain) was by Designer Sean Powell; The realistic set by Eli Reid & Catie Barrett and Costume Design by Holly Budd.
The Whipping Man plays through October 18th, call them now for tickets (845) 657-5511, or visit http://www.ShadowandTheatre.org.