Jesse Bush’s production of “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez captures with poignancy the hardships war survivors face. Set in the days following the end of the Civil War, “The Whipping Man” tells the story of three men — two former slaves and their young master, a Confederate soldier, returned home from war. Thrown together under extraordinary circumstances, they are given no choice but to look out for one another despite the deep rifts and secrets that lie between them. Produced and staged by Kitchen Theatre Company, “The Whipping Man” is a dark and moving piece that addresses questions of freedom, love and the nature of family.
Located in the ruins of the DeLeon family estate, the staging of this play was simple but effective. The shattered windows, broken stairs and stained walls helped create the effect of bygone elegance torn to pieces by the cruel reality of war. The dim lighting and constant sound of rain outside add to the gloomy tone of the show. The artistic team, led by artistic director Rachel Lampert and lighting design director Tyler Perry, a recent graduate of Ithaca College, did an excellent job of setting the tone of the piece and keeping everything from the costumes to the set historically accurate.
The cast, composed entirely of three male actors, played their parts with fervor and vibrancy. Caleb, played by Ithaca College senior Daniel Berlingeri, is a shell-shocked and severely injured former Confederate soldier seeking solace in his childhood home. However, he returns to find his house in ruins and the rest of his family gone. The only people there are two former slaves of the household, Simon (Alexander Thomas) and John (Darian Dauchan). Reluctantly, Caleb must depend on their goodwill to save his life.
Berlingeri’s portrayal of a young, traumatized soldier was profound and full of bitterness, regret and uncertainty. Meanwhile, Dauchan’s character, an energetic, irreverent and roguish man, serves as the comic relief for the otherwise dark piece. And yet, his sharp-witted quips and mischievous antics belie a deeper pain caused by years of misuse and hardship, as shown by his moving and graphic description of being whipped by Caleb as a young boy. Thomas’s character, Simon, acts as the older, wiser voice of reason in the play. It is he who tends to Caleb and keeps John safe from a local man he has angered. He is also a man of tradition, insisting they celebrate Passover, even as the world is falling apart around them. But, he is not without his own troubles and worries — his wife and daughter are gone, and he has no idea when or if he will see them again.
Thomas, who recently broke his arm, must also be lauded for giving an outstanding performance despite sustaining a serious injury. This caused some difficulty with blocking, as Thomas was confined to a chair for the majority of the play. However, the cast and crew pulled together admirably and, with the clever use of lighting and body language cues from the other actors, it had little effect on the play overall.
The audience’s response to “The Whipping Man” was overwhelmingly positive, with many audience members in tears or on their feet by the end of the show. Despite its dark nature, this show is also a play about hope, new beginnings and coming together in times of difficulty. Running through Feb. 10, “The Whipping Man” at the Kitchen Theatre Company is definitely worth checking out. On Feb. 9, there will be a special talk-back session with the actors and members of the creative team following the show. Tickets cost from $15 to $35.
Three and a half stars.