History comes alive in NJT’s ‘The Whipping Man’

 J. Samuel Davis (left), Gregg Fenner (above, right) and Austin Pierce in New Jewish Theatre’s production of ‘The Whipping Man.’  Photo: John Lamb 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The American Civil War, which was blazing full force 150 years ago, is brought searingly to life in the New Jewish Theatre’s masterful presentation of Matthew Lopez’s prize-winning play, “The Whipping Man.” Audiences that enjoyed last year’s superb production of the same play at the Black Rep, will want to join first-timers to experience NJT’s take on Lopez’s masterful work, which was named the winner of the John Glasser New Play Award.

Among the hundreds of thousands of Americans who served on either side of the War Between the States, were 10,000 Jews, of whom 7,000 fought on the side of the Union. But some 3,000 American Jews also served in the Confederate Army, a fact that comes as a disturbing surprise to many contemporary Jews who cannot imagine their people, whose central narrative of Passover celebrates our freedom from slavery, fighting under the flag of the Confederacy.

These inconvenient truths are explored with explosively high drama in this story centered on just such a Southern Jewish family — the DeLeons of Virginia, whose son, Caleb DeLeon (Austin Pierce), is badly wounded in one of his legs as he was leaving the scene of a major battle at Petersburg.  He manages to return to his once comfortable Richmond, Va. home, which has been ravaged and ransacked by Yankees, Rebel outlaws and freed slaves.  It is April 1865, following the surrender by Southern Gen. Robert E. Lee to Union Commander Ulysses S. Grant and just before President Lincoln’s ill-fated attendance of a comedy at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.

Audiences are stunned not only by Caleb’s agony from his horrific wounds, but by the fact that the DeLeon family were observant Jews, practicing the kosher dietary laws and even raising two of their slaves, the older Simon (J. Samuel Davis) and the younger John (Gregory Fenner).  

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With nimble direction by Doug Finlayson, all three actors in the gripping two-act drama deliver bravura performances. Pierce’s Caleb must not only contend with his life-threatening wounded leg, but the reality of post-war Richmond, from which his parents have fled, and which has been laid waste by opportunistic looters—including the younger of the two freed slaves, John, whose outwardly carefree swagger masks deep wounds of his own. Davis imbues the older, wiser Simon with a multi-layered sensitivity.

Playwright Lopez, in production notes with his script, makes it clear he wants audiences to be terrified by the horrific scene involving the amputation of Caleb’s wounded leg by the experienced Simon and the cynical and reluctant John, who has unresolved issues with Caleb.  Caleb refuses to trust the Richmond hospital and pleads with Simon to perform the grisly operation, using whiskey that John has stolen from neighbors as the only “anesthetic.” The hope is Caleb will be so drunk that he will pass out during the gory procedure.

In the course of the play, all three of the characters must come to terms with the slave-owning history of the Lopez family, their own sense of how to be Jewish in the new post-war reality and how to move on with their lives in a far from certain future.  Since it is the season of Passover, Simon insists that they honor the holiday with a seder, using meat from the dead skinny horse on which Caleb rode back to Richmond, the hard-tack from his mess kit for matzo and the stolen whiskey for the wine.  The irony of the occasion is not lost on the participants who nonetheless honor the occasion, acting like the “three sons” at the seder table with their doubts, their wisdom and their fears writ large.

Major kudos to John C. Stark’s work as scenic designer and artist as well as to lighting director Michael Sullivan and sound director Robin Weatherall for their top notch work in creating a convincing and authentic looking setting.

Whether you love history or not, you will learn much from “The Whipping Man” about the impact of the American Civil War on the Jews who were caught up in the conflict and how they addressed their specific needs during one of the most traumatic chapters in the history of the Promised Land of America.