Friday, February 6, 2015

THE WHIPPING MAN at Pasadena Playhouse
Adam Haas Hunter, Charlie Robinson and Jarrod M. Smith
Photo by Debora Robinson

April 13, 1865.  Late at night. The Civil War lumbers on. The South on its last legs.   Into Tom Buderwitz’s shabby southern mansion, now in total disarray, by looters or the ravages of war, Rebel soldier, Caleb (Adam Haas Hunter), stumbles through the front door accompanied by thunder claps and lightning. Caleb may be a deserter from the Confederate Army.  He is the son of the home’s owner, a Jew, who has brought all of his family and slaves into the fold.   Passover is upon the house.


The storm echoes the seventh plague of Egypt as Moses called upon God to convince Old Pharaoh to let his enslaved people go.  The correlation between the emancipation of the slaves at the heart of the Civil War and the liberation of the Jews in ancient Egypt brings to light an idea that has seldom been approached.  Playwright Matthew Lopez, in his Obie Award winning play, examines not only the influence of slave owners on their ‘property’ but how liberation affects the now free men: former slaves as they sojourn into the wide world. 

Excellent and bombastic Charlie Robinson, as Simon, the old retainer for Caleb’s family, enters to find Caleb in excruciating pain dragging himself into the large and formerly lavish living room.  Gangrene has set in.  Simon, as the slave who has been chief cook for Caleb’s family for years, along with his servant wife, Elizabeth and their daughter, Sarah, has knowledge of medicine in a rudimentary way.  An amputation must be performed.   John aka Nigger John, Jarrod M. Smith, arrives bearing the fruits of war, including much needed whiskey for the eventual removal of Caleb’s wounded leg. 

Martin Benson (founder, with David Emmes, of the South Coast Repertory Theatre where this production was developed), allows the actors to take rein and run with the action.  In Act II, April 15, 1865, the night of Passover, Simon has intended to make a seder and using whatever they can find, including hardtack for matzoh, he is deeply saddened to learn that the President has been shot and killed.  The interaction of how to deal with liberation, the death of the man who brought the Emancipation to the slaves explodes.  The aspect of ‘two peas in a pod’ describing the childhood friendship between Caleb and John, is at once conflicted as it was the custom to keep slaves in line by sending them to the Whipping Man, which was done to both John and Simon, exposes a strong ethical and personal dichotomy that permeated the country in the days of the Civil War and in a way continues today.

A beautifully staged production with excellent technical aspects gives the audience much to think about.  Highly recommended.  Special Talk Back days are listed on the Playhouse website.  A special nod to the Playhouse for, at last, installing new seating.  No longer does an audience member have to cross their fingers hoping that they would not be sinking into the exposed spring of a tattered seat. 

By Matthew Lopez
The Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino
Pasadena, CA 91101
Tuesday Through Fridays at 8PM
Saturdays at 4PM and 8PM
Sundays at 2PM and 7PM
Through March 1, 2015
Tickets and Information:
626 356 7529

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