"Are we Jews or are we slaves?"
That question, posed by a newly freed slave tutored in the religion of his Jewish masters, resonates throughout "The Whipping Man," Matthew Lopez's historically based examination of faith and race receiving its Chicago-area premiere at Northlight Theatre.
"The Whipping Man"★ ★ ★
Location: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300 or northlight.org
Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 24. Also 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12. No 1 p.m. show Feb. 6. No 7:30 p.m. show Feb. 13. No 7 p.m. show Feb. 3 and 24
Running time: About 2 hours, with intermission
Parking: Free parking in lot
Rating: For teens and older; strong language and suggested violence
To some extent, each character in Lopez's earnest, multilayered, if sometimes overwrought play -- former slaves Simon and John, and Caleb DeLeon, the son of their former master -- grapples with that question.
United by their Jewish faith, they're divided by race, which in the Confederate South confines them to master and servant. This presents another dilemma: How can people whose ancestors were enslaved justify owning another human being themselves? How can people who share a faith rooted in basic humanity behave so inhumanely toward each other? Lopez doesn't provide any answers, although we can guess what they are. And frankly, those questions are best left to Caleb's father, the slaveholding patriarch of the DeLeon family, who doesn't appear in the play but whose behavior has impacted every character in it.
Lopez sets the play during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War -- specifically the period between Gen. Robert E. Lee's April 9, 1865, surrender at Appomattox and President Abraham Lincoln's assassination five days later. The action unfolds in the once-stately but now ravaged Richmond, Virginia, home of the DeLeons, a prominent Jewish family.
Expertly designed by Jack Magaw, the dimly lit interior -- with its ripped up floorboards, shattered windows and ragged furniture -- reflects the scars resulting from war, weather and looters.
Into this ruined manor stumbles Caleb (Derek Gaspar), a wounded Confederate soldier returning to his family home in the middle of a thunderstorm vividly depicted by sound designer Christopher Kriz and lighting designer Christine A. Binder.
There to greet him is former slave Simon (Tim Edward Rhoze), whose wife and daughter evacuated the city with the master. After spending part of the war attending wounded soldiers at a nearby hospital, Simon, now a free man, has returned to look after the family home at the request of Caleb's mother. Noticing the bullet wound to Caleb's leg, Simon informs him it has turned gangrenous and requires amputation and suggests they head to a nearby hospital for the operation. Caleb refuses and, in a cringe-inducing (albeit nearly bloodless) scene, submits to the lifesaving amputation which Simon performs with help from John (Sean Parris), another former DeLeon family slave.
An uneasy reunion follows, with each member of the trio negotiating this newfound liberty. While Simon plans for a new life with his family in a home of his own, John "procures" and "liberates" food, whiskey and other items from the ruined homes of Richmond's elite to finance his journey to New York City. As for the recovering Caleb, he wrestles with making requests of his onetime servants instead of issuing demands, while he tries to keep hidden a shameful secret.
His isn't the only secret revealed over the course of the play, whose compelling climax comes in the form of a shared Passover Seder commemorating the Jews' exodus from bondage, which becomes more meaningful in this context coming as it does in the wake of emancipation. Combining Jewish religious traditions, African-American spirituals and plain-spoken language, the trio's makeshift Seder provides the play's most moving, multilayered moments.
Much of its impact comes from the exceptional acting evident in director Kimberly Senior's able production. Lanky and charismatic, Parris imbues the increasingly dapper John (a result of the ever-more-elegant clothes he "procures") with an embittered swagger fueled by underlying anger and the still-raw wound of a long-ago betrayal. Also worthy of note is Gaspar's highly expressive performance as Caleb, all controlled panic coupled with resignation that the life he knew is gone forever.
Last but not least is Rhoze, whose Simon occupies the play's moral center. Rhoze's performance reveals dignity, devotion and the fundamental decency of the elder who -- as he nurses Caleb and advises John -- emerges as a kind of father figure to the younger men. No cheap sentiment colors Rhoze's reasoned, yet deeply felt performance of a man who understands freedom depends as much on a man's state of mind as it does on his physical liberty.
Near the end of the play he wonders, "Were we Jews or were we slaves?"
Lopez never makes the answer explicit. No matter, we already know.