Three Jewish men huddle in the ruins of their family estate, trying to cobble together the necessary ingredients for a Passover seder. Caleb (Justin Ivan Brown) is a lapsed Jew, wounded physically and spiritually by the war that has only just receded. Simon (Ron Himes), the eldest, is a simple and devout man who sees much good in even this small and somber fellowship, because it means the family is beginning to come together again. John (Ronald L. Conner) is a canny dissembler, an operator using the chaos left by the war's passing to even personal scores and increase his social standing through any means necessary.
The shadow looming over their ceremony is the knowledge that the last time all three men were together, Caleb owned Simon and John. The Emancipation Proclamation has freed Simon and John and all the other slaves in America, but it didn't wipe clean the slate between former masters and servants. Not by a long shot.
In the hands of director Ed Smith and the Black Rep, Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man is a stunning evening of theater. It strikes at the heart of what it means to believe in religion and what it means — and requires — to be your brother's keeper. It is a revelatory experience driven by three magnificent performances.
Perhaps a word of warning for the squeamish is in order. Confederate officer Caleb DeLeon returns home to Richmond, Virginia, with a gangrenous leg, which Simon and John must remove with only the tools at hand: a carpenter's saw, a pair of shears and copious amounts of whiskey. Simon explains the procedure in enough detail to make most of the opening-night crowd squirm uncomfortably; the actual removal of Caleb's leg is a short sharp shock by comparison, as well as a masterful piece of stagecraft.
Brown plays Caleb with bristling pride, as a man who persists in ordering Simon around as if the latter were still his property. He's resentful of Simon's and John's new freedom and loath to discuss what happens next with the DeLeon family estate, particularly because he a few secrets are stalking his conscience. When they come home, the DeLeon family will be irreparably altered.
John, too, has secrets he's attempting to suppress. Conner crafts a complete portrayal of John, a likable rogue who's intelligent, well-read and used to conning people with his charm and sharp wit. His adversarial relationship with Caleb is now in new territory: Are they really equals? John jabs Caleb with ever-sharper needling in an effort to determine just how much he can get away with in this free South.
But it's Simon who is the heart and soul of this small family, and Himes makes him breathe with an indelibly nuanced performance. He manages his fiery young charges with simple speech that cuts them to the quick. "You're livin' in the world now, not just servin' in it," he tells John at one point, puncturing the former slave's ebullient bubble. The resultant look of fearful surprise on Conner's face speaks equally to John's shortsightedness and lack of self-awareness. Himes' wide eyes and firmly set mouth say just as much about Simon's compassion, and his regret that John is still playing at being free rather than actually thinking about the changes to come.
That uncertainty about what comes next runs through The Whipping Man like a slow-burning fuse. When the charge finally detonates, the DeLeon home is blasted clean. All three men are changed, and the audience is too. You'll leave with wobbly knees and a bruised heart, but you'll walk out under your own power, free at last.