‘Whipping Man’: A Civil War seder as the South crumbles

(C. Stanley Photography/Theater J) - Offering intriguing turns in the play are, from left, Alexander Strain, Mark Hairston and David Emerson Toney.

The characters of Matthew Lopez’s engrossing if soberly conventional Civil War drama, “The Whipping Man,” gather around a makeshift seder table in the ruins of a stately Richmond homestead to remember Moses’s deliverance of his people from enslavement by the pharaoh.

“Let my people go!” sings the oldest and most devout of them, the mournful Simon, played with dignified self-possession by the always effective David Emerson Toney. The startling aspect of this Passover meal is not that such a tradition could survive in the charred remains of the capital of the vanquished Confederacy, but that two of the celebrants at the table are former slaves of the third.

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With its excessive diligence in tying up all of its narrative threads and the assertive degree to which it unfolds its ironies — such as the fact that Jews could have been the owners of slaves who were raised with their religion — “The Whipping Man” comes across as the work of someone who’s still feeling his way as a writer. That it’s so consciously well-made means it satisfies our visceral craving for dramatic tidiness, even if it conforms more readily to the contemporary mandates of TV than the stage.

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.

Playing the battered scion of a Southern landowning clan, the dashing Strain manages to temper Caleb’s entitlement with a needed trace of vulnerability. He and the puckishly likable Hairston run intriguingly with the notion that underlying the antipathy between their characters is a comprehension that they are more alike than different. Toney successfully fulfills Simon’s more sympathetic mission, as a man pure of soul on whom the tragic ramifications of slavery are unceremoniously dumped.

Through tattered garments and faded uniforms, costume designer Ivania Stack places the ravages of the war in vivid, sartorial terms, and Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design builds old-fashioned tension with the conjuring of a driving rainstorm. For this murky moment of American transition, lighting designer Nancy Schertler contributes a sense of perpetual night, which gives additional character to Conway’s faded set, one that easily evokes a South in ruins.

Secret by secret, Lopez doles out the information his characters conceal, a process that gives “The Whipping Man” its noticeable by-the-book feel. It also keeps you curious about what comes next, and like the turning point in history it presents, that’s of no small consequence.

The Whipping Man

by Matthew Lopez. Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. Dramaturgy, Faedra C. Carpenter and Drew Barker; scenic artist, Amy Kellett. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through May 20 at D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW.
Visit www.theaterj.org or call 800-494-8497.

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