Theater review: ‘The Whipping Man’ spotlights our past, illuminates our today

By RENEE VALOIS | Special to the Pioneer Press

PUBLISHED: February 5, 2017 at 1:33 pm | UPDATED: February 5, 2017 at 1:43 pm

The original article can be found HERE.

More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, that horrific episode in America’s history still casts a shadow over our country.

“The Whipping Man”, Matthew Lopez’s award-winning play set at the end of the war in Richmond, Virginia, shows some of the reasons why—but it does much more. It also explores the idea of freedom—and how our choices can enslave us and those we touch, or can deliver us to liberty.

This isn’t the first time Lopez’s play has been staged in St. Paul (Penumbra did it), but it’s the first time beloved actress Sally Wingert has directed a show. Her production shines in spite of the setting’s stormy nights; from the casting and depth of the acting to the staging and set, she has broken open the power of the play.

Warren C. Bowles anchors the action of the three-person show in a compelling performance as Simon, a longtime slave of the wealthy DeLeon family. He was raised to be Jewish, like his masters, and follows an inner compass that guides him to “do what’s right” even if that means saving the life of one who used to order him around (and still wants to).

He admonishes and advises two young men, one white and one black, that he calls “two peas in a pod.” Although they grew up together, their closeness was shattered by an event that transformed their brotherly relationship into harsh “master” and “slave” roles.

The young men are both clearly hiding something and flailing at life—and we gradually learn how their choices have shackled them. Riley O’Toole is powerful as Caleb DeLeon, the son of the household and a wounded Confederate soldier—who barely manages to make his way home, only to find everyone gone from the half-destroyed mansion except for loyal, hopeful Simon.

Former slave John (JuCoby Johnson) moves in and out of the house, angry, drinking, looting—clearly being devoured by something from within. Wingert gives him wide-ranging restlessness as he moves up and down the spiral stairs and roams back and forth across the stage like a caged animal in stark contrast to the immobile, wounded Caleb, whose limited range suggests how his authority has shrunk.

The show also grapples with love versus possession as it considers the results of liaisons between white masters and black slave women. Can someone truly love you if they have no choice in the relationship?

This fine production of an intense, riveting play slices through lies to reveal what freedom really demands—intersecting events of our world today in a canny, disturbing way.

“The Whipping Man”

  • Where: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul
  • When: Through February 26
  • Tickets: $20-34, $12 student rush
  • Information:  mnjewishtheatre.org; 651-647-4315