This afternoon I attended a preview performance of "The Whipping Man," a play by Matthew Lopez that is scheduled to open on February 1 at Manhattan Theatre Club (New York City Center Stage I). While it is "bad form" to review a preview performance, this one is so close to opening that I have no reservation in giving it my two thumbs up based on what I saw and heard this afternoon.
Inspired by a passing reference to the fact that the surrender of the Confederacy, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the beginning of Passover all came together in April 1865, Lopez has constructed a compelling tale of a Jewish Confederate officer who returns to his family home in Richmond, Virginia, during that fateful week, having suffered a grievous gunshot wound to his leg, to find that his parents and other family members are gone, leaving behind only two men in the house who were slaves of the family and now are free. Each has lingered for their own reasons. The interesting twist to the story is the idea that the slaves owned by the DeLeon family were raised in the Jewish faith of the family — indeed, a rather strictly observant Jewish faith that honored the dietary laws and the requirement to recite blessings in Hebrew before eating meals — and that these two former slaves, Simon and John, remain firm adherents to Judaism while Caleb has become disillusioned through his exposure to the horrors of war.
What makes the play so gripping is, first of all, Matthew Lopez's extraordinary ability to create effectively realistic dialogue. Perhaps an anachronistic phrase slips in here and there, but most of the time the dialogue has a natural quality and avoids the kind of set speech that can sometimes afflict historical dramas. (The only possible exception is Simon's outburst that ends the Passover seder…. but it is so dramatically effective as not to matter on this score.) The second thing that makes the play so gripping is that this production, from the casting to the direction to the costumes and sets and lighting and sound effects and music, is all so effectively done that you are literally transported to a rainy few days in Richmond of 1865. The three actors — Andre Braugher and Andre Holland as the former slaves, and Jay Wilkison as the Confederate officer — are superb in their roles, and Doug Hughes' production fully realizes the emotional power inherent in the script. A young playwright could not ask for a better first professional New York production of his work. Finally, of course, Lopez has come up with a compelling story, full of surprising twists and turns as the characters reveal the long-held secrets of the family bit by bit until the final revelation that comes like a punch in the gut.
This deserves to become a "hot ticket," as it is an enthralling piece of theater that has layers of meaning packed into it, raises all kinds of questions about family and faith, and ultimately leaves the audience deeply moved. See it, by all means!