There are many narratives that celebrate the coming together of once intractable enemies — Arab and Israeli, peasant and landowner, torturer and tortured — with scenes showing growing comprehension, forgiveness, even respect and affection. But in 1865, immediately following the defeat of Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Appomattox, the crime of slavery was too recent and the wounds too deep for anything resembling reconciliation. The conditions in Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man, now receiving its regional premiere at Curious Theatre Company, should be right for it: Caleb, a Confederate soldier, crawls into his Virginia home with a gangrened leg, and Simon, a wise, tough old slave still occupying the ruined mansion, has the knowledge and guts to perform the amputation that saves Caleb's life. The two men, soon joined by another newly freed slave — the thieving joker, John — are civil with each other, and all three share a deep history. But their differences remain insurmountable: Caleb cannot begin to understand the others' lives, nor can he stop himself from giving them orders.
Playwright Lopez has hit on a brilliant plot device to explore the play's huge historical shift, however, and also to serve as a telling metaphor. Caleb's family is Jewish, and his father passed the faith on to Simon and John; they love and depend on it, and both consider Judaism a great gift. (Surprising as this premise may seem, it is rooted in historical fact.) This man was somewhat kinder than many other slave owners, but the long, oppressive trudge of Jewish history didn't prevent him from employing the local whipping man of the play's title, and he never saw Simon and John as anything other than possessions. As the grim aftermath of war unfolds outside and Caleb recovers from surgery, Simon and John contemplate the meaning of their newly acquired freedom. Then Simon realizes it's Passover and decides to stage a seder. Passover celebrates the release of the Jews from bondage in Israel. Simon, quoting Leviticus, wants to know where he and John stand in the story: Are they Jews to be given a homeland, or are they heathens to be cast out? I have celebrated Passover for decades with a group of friends concerned with civil rights. Every year we mention slavery, discuss human rights in general and — just as the characters in The Whipping Man do — sing "Go Down, Moses" with great feeling and emphasis. And every year we avoid all mention of one thing: the Palestinians being expelled by Israel from their ancestral homeland. It seems that understanding and reconciliation can only go so far.
There's a fair amount of plot to The Whipping Man, some of it too contrived; the play's profound significance lies less in plot than in the unanswerable questions it raises. And the charged ambiguity of the final scene, in which some kind of brotherhood will either be asserted or abandoned, is nothing short of brilliant. The characters are three-dimensional and detailed; you feel with each in turn, and also recoil from each in turn — excepting perhaps strong, kindly Simon. (Another play by Lopez, a cross-dressing comedy, is currently opening at the Denver Center Theatre Company, and you have to marvel at an imagination that can take on topics so diverse.)
This Curious production of The Whipping Man, directed by Kate Folkins and Chip Walton, is not quite perfect, but it's close. As always, the technical quality is excellent, with Markas Henry's set and costumes, Shannon McKinney's lighting, and special effects by Todd Debreceni — and believe me, the special effects have to be spot-on here. Brian Freeland's thunder and rain actually sound like thunder and rain. But, of course, it's the acting that matters most, and the level is high. Cajardo Lindsey is a terrific Simon — doubly and triply so because the actor was forced to take over the role only six days before the opening. (I'd very much like to see what happens as the run continues, as Lindsey fully settles into the bones of the man he's playing.) Sean Scrutchins is strong, though Caleb's grief in the second act would be more poignant if Scrutchins modulated its expression more; at the moment, it's too one-note. I've enjoyed Laurence Curry's work for a while, but as John he takes it to new heights, communicating all the dark currents of rage and pain beneath the character's assumed insouciance and, in a sense, embodying the conflicted soul of the play.