Set shortly after the conclusion of America’s civil war, the Arden's production of Mathew Lopez's drama The Wipping Man takes place in a once-handsome mansion in Richmond, Va.
“Hell happened in this town,” Simon (Johnny Hobbs Jr.) says to Caleb (Cody Nickell), explaining the home’s scarred appearance. (The explanation is unnecessary.) A confederate officer whose family owns the house, Caleb has seen more than his share of hell. He is badly injured and though he's made his way home, Simon (the family’s longtime slave) tells him his leg must be removed. Staged with stark clarity by Director Matt Pfeiffer, lighting designer Thom Weaver and talented sound designer Christopher Colucci, the amputation is frightening to watch and even more terrifying to hear. As Simon saws, and a younger, recently freed slave named John (the excellent and ever-improving James Ijames) restrains a screaming Caleb, Pfeiffer effectively displays not only the horror of war, but the complicated and abruptly changing relationship between the three men.
It is this relationship that is of central interest to Lopez. Intimate but not equal, Caleb, Simon and John are struggling to survive in a world where the rules (and subsequently the men’s roles) have suddenly changed. The eldest by a generation, Simon is the wisest of the three, and has managed to retain his sense of optimism despite a life of forced servitude. The restless John is the same age as Caleb, and as kids often played together. Yet repeated whippings have left their mark and John remains understandably resentful toward Caleb and his family. Caleb is the least interesting of the trio (in the first act he is in so much pain he is barely lucid) but in Nickell’s fine performance he reveals himself to be a man of deep and (like Simon and John) conflicting emotions.
Lopez isn’t the first writer to explore the relationships between slaves and slaveowners, but the characters are so authentic that our interest never wanes. And Lopez adds an interesting twist: Simon, Caleb and John are all Jewish, an element that Lopez effectively uses to explore issues of race, faith and the struggle for freedom endured by both Jews and African-Americans.
Although all the action takes place in the front parlor of the Richmond home, the play has the feel of a sweeping epic. Through his descriptive, vibrant writing, Lopez gives Whipping Man an almost cinematic quality, adroitly conjuring a wealth of images: trenches filled with the blood of dead soldiers on the battlefield at Vicksburg; the Confederate forces surrendering at Gettysburg; thousands of Jews wandering the desert in search of freedom; fields of cotton on grand Southern Plantations; and the crowded streets of Richmond are vividly described by the three men.
In the past few years, Pfeiffer has become one of Philly’s busiest directors—and for good reason. An actor himself, his productions have previously been more notable for their acting prowess than directorial flourishes. With Whipping Man, Pfeiffer’s direction shows a newfound confidence. Perfectly paced and striking just the right tone of desperation and uncertainty, Pfeiffer’s staging is compelling both emotionally and visually (Weaver spectacular lighting mimics the intensity and hue of candlelight perfectly). However, the chief reason to see Whipping Man is Hobbs, whose towering performance as the larger-than-life Simon ranks among the best in his long career.
Whipping Man isn’t a perfect play but it is an exciting one and the Arden’s production is beautifully executed. During the holiday season, while other companies mount heartwarming musicals and lighthearted comedies aimed at the entire family, the Arden provides a welcome alternative with a play that shows that American families come in many different shapes, sizes and colors.
Through Dec. 18. $29-$48. Arcadia Stage, Arden Theatre Company. 40 N. Second St. 215.922.1122. ardentheatre.org