If I were to detail the plot of playwright Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man, it would sound like the outline of a soap opera, given that the twists seem so melodramatically shocking. However, the story doesn't play out that way, both because Lopez handles the revelations so well, and because New Ground Theatre presents this story of a Confederate soldier and two of his family's freed slaves with respect and sincerity.
There's enough humor in Lopez's script, particularly in its first half, to allow the audience to connect with each of the three characters before facing the heavy themes relating to slavery. Caleb, played here by Jordan Smith, returns to his family home - with a bullet in his leg - a few days after the end of the Civil War. One of his family's former slaves, Simon (played by Fred Harris, Jr., who also directs the production), chooses to care for Caleb while tending to the house and waiting for his former owner to return. (Set designer Patty Koensigsaecker effectively renders the abandoned mansion through a front entryway with Colonial-style trim on the door and flanking windows, and an obvious lack of upkeep.) As Simon prepares to get Caleb something to eat from the almost-bare pantry, he mentions that Caleb said something about being so hungry that he'd eat anything. And when Caleb responds in the affirmative, Simon says, "You did say you rode a horse, didn't you?" Such jokes are presented in a matter-of-fact manner, as though Simon is stating the obvious and not trying to be funny, which I found to be even funnier for its subtler delivery.
While there is quite a bit of humor in the play, and I laughed often during the first half of Friday's performance, The Whipping Man isn't a comedy; it features serious themes about slavery, using all three characters' Jewish faith and their practice of a Passover Seder to examine the subject. Caleb, Simon, and the former slave John (Vincent L. Briley) are confined to the house, for the most part, but stay due to various circumstances. Caleb cannot leave for at least two reasons, one of which is because Simon and John have to cut off his wounded leg to prevent the spread of gangrene. (The other reason is a key plot point that I will not reveal here, as is John's rationale for sticking around.) Simon, however, chooses to remain in the home in which he's served generations of owners. He's waiting to receive money promised him, by Caleb's dad, should the South lose the war, and waiting to reunite with his wife and daughter so they can start a new life together.
While Smith blends a believable pomposity with subtle efforts to hide his guilt and broken spirit, Harris' characterization is a bit harder to read, at least at first. For much of the play, his Simon is a go-with-the-flow kind of man, with an agreeable nature and a seeming lack of animosity. It's consequently easy to read his likeability as one-note, until you realize his enslavement has made him this way as a means of avoiding trouble - of survival. And Harris eventually forsakes this amicability, unleashing an effective and terrifyingly intense anger once the chains of his metaphorical slavery are broken.
Briley, too, unveils a transformation in his John, who initially wears a good-natured smile that seems to effervesce from the core of his being. His bright-eyed buoyancy, however, is soon revealed to be the result of indifference - John's means of avoiding the gravity of his enslavement. While Simon grows into a force with which to be reckoned, John deflates, abandoning his mask of pride when the chains of his actions eventually lock him down. There are notable moments which more than hint at the true nature of this man's soul as one that's hurting and broken, though John refuses to show it. When it's revealed that, when they were children, Caleb gave John his nickname of "Nigger John," Briley delivers the line "Your nickname caught on real fast" with the weight of blame and years of torment behind it.
And there are even more layers of anguish, hurt, and distrust in the way Briley describes John's first visit to "the whipping man" at the order of Caleb's father. As he speaks of the man tasked with punishing local slaves, John's tirade - "And I was whipped. And whipped. And whipped. Wasn't I, Caleb?" - boasts an intensity that leaves no doubt as to the scars, both physical and psychological, the experience left behind. I wouldn't say that I am changed by the experience of seeing New Ground's The Whipping Man, but I did enjoy the presentation, finding it interesting and engaging right up to the climactic revelation that will haunt the characters for the rest of their lives.
The Whipping Man runs at the Village Theatre (2113 East 11th Street, Davenport) through March 30, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)326-7529 or visiting NewGroundTheatre.org.