Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Theater Review: The Whipping Man -- Hartford Stage

Josh Landay, Che Ayende and Leon Addison Brown. Photo T. Charles Erickson
The Line Between Family, Freedom is a Scar on the Back
By Lauren Yarger
Superb set design by Andromache Chalfant, skillful direction by Hana S. Sharif and strong performances enhance a sharp script by Matthew Lopez to create one of the best performances on a Connecticut Stage this year.

It's Hartford Stage's The Whipping Man, a tale of family and freedom set in the days right after the Civil War. A wounded Caleb (Josh Landay) arrives at the burned-out remains of his family estate following the surrender of his army at Appomattox. Former slave Simon (Leon Addison Brown) guards the property, awaiting the return of his wife and daughter, who left with Caleb's father.

John (Che Ayende), another former slave and boyhood chum of Caleb's arrives bringing much needed food and supplies "discovered" at nearby estates. John is on the run, but takes refuge at his former home. When Caleb refuses to go to an army hospital, Simon amputates his gangrenes leg. Unable to care for himself, the former master's son now has to remember to ask nicely when he needs something instead of barking orders.

A twist to the story is the family's Jewish beliefs. Caleb abandoned God and prayer in a fox hole, but Simon holds on to his faith and decides to celebrate a Seder dinner, improvised like the first one, with what they scrounge. Faith, friendship and family roots all are pulled up as the truth about what has taken place at the house, and John's periodic trips to see the plantation's "whipping man" for punishment are revealed.

The writing in this 90-minute, intermissionless play is taut and Lopez develops compelling characters while building an atmosphere of tension and suspense. This production, particularly the massive house, in ruins like the family and the hopes of the South,  closely mirrors the stellar version which played at the Manhattan Theatre Club and took home the Outer Critics Circle's John Gassner Award for Lopez. Marcus Doshi's lighting design and Broken Chord Collective's original music and sound design greatly enhance the dramatic presentation. Don't miss it.

The Whipping Man plays through March 18 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Evening performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 pm and  Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.  Matinee performances are Sundays and selected Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 pm.  For tickets call the box office at 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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