THE WHIPPING MAN by Matthew Lopez (Harold Green Jewish Theatre/Obsidian). At Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio (5040 Yonge). Runs to April 14. $42.50-$62.50. See listings. Rating: NNNN
Set at the end of the American Civil War, The Whipping Man expands a historical curiosity into a potent, far-ranging and at times explosive investigation of family, faith and freedom.
The genius of up-and-coming American playwright Matthew Lopez's first script lies in the dramatic and thematic possibilities opened up by its characters' complex social identities. Simon (Sterling Davis) and John (Thomas Olajide) are recently freed slaves owned by a Southern Jewish family who raised them as Jews. On the eve of Passover, they return to find their former owner's estate looted and in shambles and Confederate captain Caleb (Brett Donahue), the owners' son, seriously injured.
Tension builds as the three struggle to adjust to the new social order, and deeply held family secrets threaten to topple their fragile alliance.
Right from the intense opening scene, in which Simon performs a gruesome yet life-saving procedure on Caleb, the dynamic between Davis, Donahue and Olajide is gripping in its moment-to-moment volatility. Stirring, realistic performances by all three squeeze every last drop of emotion from Lopez's rich and evocative script, and stay with you long after.
Director Philip Akin provides a steady hand for the at times frantic and fiery action, inserting breathing space at the right moments to allow the full implications of certain revelations to sink in. His use of stomps and claps during a scene where John recounts being punished by the titular whipping man is absolutely haunting, and couldn't be more powerful.
The connection Lopez makes between the historical slavery of blacks in America and the Biblical story of Jewish enslavement in ancient Egypt is compelling on multiple levels, and especially insightful in light of the Jewish experience of slavery in World War II and present-day segregation and social inequalities in Israel.