Arts & Culture

Theater review: ‘The Whipping Man’ satisfies at Raleigh Little Theatre

Phillip Bernard Smith as Simon in “The Whipping Man.”
Phillip Bernard Smith as Simon in “The Whipping Man.”

Matthew Lopez’s Civil War drama, “The Whipping Man,” addresses big themes of freedom, family and religion. If the play’s several stunning scenes don’t quite balance out other less well-written sections, Raleigh Little Theatre’s production proves the piece can be a satisfyingly moving experience.

It’s April 1865. Caleb, a wounded Confederate soldier, has struggled back to his Richmond family home. It’s been ransacked and left in the hands of two former slaves.

Simon, the older and more faithful, welcomes his former master and attends to his wounds. Young, rebellious John reluctantly shares food and whiskey he’s looted from nearby homes. Each dreams of a new life: Simon to build a house for his wife and daughter; John to leave for New York City; Caleb to reconnect with the woman he loves.

Caleb’s family was Jewish, with the slaves instructed in that religion. As it’s Passover, Simon and John pull together a meager Seder meal, in which Caleb, having lost his faith from the horrors of war, initially declines to participate. But the ritual’s words are particularly pertinent at the moment, ultimately unleashing family secrets and hidden animosities that change their lives forever.

Miyuki Su’s detailed set puts the audience inside the home’s large foyer, its walls making up the perimeter of the black box space. Broken windowpanes, dangling ceiling beams and peeling wallpaper add suitable atmosphere, aided by Kaitlin Gill’s candle-flicker lighting design.

Director Patrick Torres stages the highly charged moments with gripping energy and does what he can to enliven the awkward transitions and overstated points in the less successful sections.

Phillip Bernard Smith’s deeply affecting portrayal of Simon dominates the production. He projects the character’s warmth and affection for Caleb, but also the long-buried hurt of being a slave and the shattering pain from secrets revealed.

Ryan Ladue’s Caleb is appropriately hardened and dissolute, later changing to guilt-laden and ashamed. Chris Helton gives John a cold defiance and supplies welcome humor to the otherwise stark drama.

The play has some harrowing moments and some harsh language, all to drive home the reality of the situation. Friday’s opening was a little rough (rehearsal time had been lost to recent weather problems) but the production still packed a powerful punch, leaving few dry eyes by the final startling revelation.

Details

What: “The Whipping Man”

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 19-21, 26-28; 3 p.m. Jan. 22, 29

Where: Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh

Tickets: $24 (seniors/students $20)

Info: 821-3111 or raleighlittletheatre.org

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