Davenport leads sterling cast in ‘The Whipping Man’
WATERTOWN — War is hell. And that’s for the winners. For the losers, it’s that much worse.
Slavery is a different kind of hell. The two different kinds of hell collide in the New Repertory Theatre production of Matthew Lopez‘s “The Whipping Man,” now at the Mosesian Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.
It is the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, after the surrender at Appomattox, and Confederate soldiers are returning to their devastated homes and plantations.
Among those returning is a wounded Jewish soldier named Caleb DeLeon (Jesse Hinson), to a home where the only occupants are his former slaves, Simon (Johnny Lee Davenport) and John (Keith Mascoll), both raised as Jews in his household.
They are slaves no longer, freed men, but freed men with no place to go and starving, scrounging and stealing what food and fuel they can find, desperately trying to survive and clinging to a promise made by Caleb’s father to stake them to a new life.
When Caleb starts ordering his former slaves around, forgetting what has just happened, Simon gently but firmly reminds him how the tables have most decidedly been turned and ponders how to address Caleb.
“Master don’t quite fit,” he observes.
There are a few scenes involving Caleb’s gangrenous leg that may upset the squeamish, although thankfully it is mostly left to the imagination.
The production values of “The Whipping Man” are superb, from Janie E. Howland’s once-gracious Richmond home reduced to ruins, to the ethereal atmosphere created by Scott Pinkney’s lighting and Dewey Dellay’s sound design and incidental music.
In its look at relationships that are unequal and troubled, “The Whipping Man” has echoes of another play in which Davenport shined — Athol Fugard’s searing “Master Harold … and The Boys” at Gloucester Stage, where he also performed under the direction of the acclaimed Benny Sato Ambush.
When it comes to setting a standard for the other members of the cast, it’s lead or get out of the way, and Davenport leads the way as a man who has stayed the course with the DeLeon family, while also tenderly and faithfully observing the rituals of Passover, in the midst of chaos and despair. Mascoll has both funny and touching moments as John, who “discovers” the food and fuel to keep the trio afloat.
Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the uproar around it are an opportunity for Davenport to deliver a spellbinding monologue on an encounter with the man and what the man meant to him — and his race.
Caleb’s family, of course, considered itself above reproach in how it treated its slaves in comparison with other slaveowners. In reality, not so wonderful. Not only did the family employ “The Whipping Man” in an attempt to impose their will on the slaves, there is a Jeffersonian relationship between Caleb and Simon’s daughter Sarah that will complicate matters greatly.
And there are questions to be answered about just how Caleb got hurt and why he won’t seek attention at the hospital.
“The Whipping Man” will take further plot turns en route to the denoument. There will be a reckoning at some point, and it will not be pretty. But neither war nor slavery are pretty, are they?
The New Repertory Theatre production of Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man.” Directed by Benny Sato Ambush. At the Mosesian Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through Feb. 16. http://www.newrep.org.