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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Aug. 22, 2014

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Josh Landay and Ro Boddie star in "The Whipping Man."
Josh Landay and Ro Boddie star in "The Whipping Man." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Strong performances power through faults in "The Whipping Man"

Outside of a small handful, there are no perfect plays. Fault, even minor fault, is easily found in almost every play.

But one of the unique and wondrous aspects of live theater is that great actors, great directors and great designers can lift any play into such rarefied air that whatever imperfections in the script are largely forgotten and ignored.

Such is the story of "The Whipping Man," the Matthew Lopez play that opened over the weekend at the Stiemke Studio at the Milwaukee Rep.

The play is a Civil War saga of three Jews, one white who returns home from the war damaged, and two blacks, who were slaves in the home and who adopted the religion of their owner.

Caleb, the white Jew, is damaged both physically and emotionally by the horror of the war where he just fought on the losing side. Returning to his Richmond home, he finds it virtually destroyed.

The remnants of the home are still being presided over by Simon, a middle aged former slave. He is joined by John, a youthful former slave who enjoys the plunder of neighboring estates that are as empty and unguarded as is Caleb’s home.

The play's conceit is a powerful and moving allegory between the freeing of the slaves during the Civil War and the exodus of Jews when freed from Egypt, an event celebrated every year by Passover. Had Lopez stuck with his story and plumbed the depths of the historic and moral parallels, this play would have been riveting.

In perhaps an attempt to create fully developed characters, however, he tosses in a series of revelations and developments that serve only as a distraction. In addition, some of them seemed shopworn, as if they had been lifted from an afternoon soap opera.

Having said that, Brent Hazelton, who continues his streak as a sensitive and courageous director, holds a steady hand on the tiller of the show, guiding it over the bumps of the script, and into the hearts and minds of the audience.

When the play came to an end, you could hear the audience exhale while the three actors stood on a stage, no smiles on their faces, knowing full well they had just reached a place that is rarely occupied.

Hazelton – who has a college degree in history – obviously understands the Civil War, but he doesn’t let this play become a history lesson. This may or may not be historically accurate, but it hardly matters.

Ro Boddie, who has a string of impressive credits and who played the youthful John, talked about Hazelton prior to the performance.

"Brent gave us the spark for this play," he said. "When we veered off track, he was there to steer us back. I loved working with him."

Boddie brought a callow gregariousness to John, alternating between flights of almost giddy fancy and plunges into deep concern and serious – if uncertain – designs on his future. It is in John that we see freedom may not be all that is cracked up to be. There was a certainty to being a well-cared-for slave, and that certainty is clearly missing in John’s freedom.

Josh Landay makes his second appearance at the Rep after playing Tateh, another Jew, in this season’s "Ragtime."

He gives us a clearly tortured Caleb, forced by circumstance to come face-to-face with his past as well as his diminished hopes for the future. Caleb is a Jew who found no godly salvation during his war.

"First I stopped praying," he says. "Then I stopped believing."

With an amputated leg, he is consigned to a mattress and struggles to find a way out of his sad, sad life. As it develops, we find a mercurial, complicated Caleb dogged with unexpected forces and twists.

The conscience in the play is Simon, the elderly ex-slave who is part of the history of this house.

James Craven is such a magnetic powerhouse on stage that at times it almost seems as if he is pulling his own reigns so as not to overwhelm the audience.

His journey, from an entrance to find Caleb on the floor to his exit into the midst of a storm, is electric. Neither Caleb nor John are ever able to escape the wisdom and fearlessness of Simon. It is Simon who provides the context for this play and for the Jewishness that envelopes it.

"A Jew does not lose his faith by not having answers," he says to the two young men. "A Jew loses his faith by not asking questions."

His performance is transcendent, and he allows the audience to join him on his journey and stay focused, avoiding the distractions presented by some of the story. I won’t reveal some of these twists, but let it at least be said that while some are noticeable, it’s easy to ignore them because of the magnificence of this performance.

The set (Scott Davis), lighting (Noele Stollmack) and the sound (Barry G. Funderburg) all serve and marvelously enhance the experience of the show. There is something special about the Stiemke that creates an air of intimacy that is perfect for the pathway "The Whipping Man" leads along.

"The Whipping Man" runs through March 16. Information is available at milwaukee.rep.com.

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