Presented by New Repertory Theatre
by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Benny Sato Ambush
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Watertown) Sometimes you can check off all the boxes for what makes an interesting play without the play adding up to great theatre. The Whipping Man, playing at the New Repertory Theatre, has all the ingredients (interesting slice of history, family drama, a striking set, a strong cast), but they don’t create something bigger.
The premise is enough to make anyone do a double-take. The scion of a Jewish slaveowner, Caleb (Jesse Hinson) stumbles home at the end of the Civil War to find there are only two of his family’s slaves, Simon (Johnny Lee Davenport) and John (Keith Mascoll) left on the plantation; they are both Jews themselves. He’s helpless, both physically and psychically, as he’s clearly not equipped to deal with the thought of Emancipation. The play, a very original twist on the traditional family melodrama, is a reckoning of the collective history of the three men, and the secrets they harbor.
Again, it sounds great on paper, but it suffers when it unfolds on stage. Playwright Matthew Lopez can’t seem to focus long enough on one of the promising themes this premise reveals to do that particular theme justice. The love/hate relationship between former master and slaves and their combined ignorance of how to move forward would have been enough, but Lopez throws in melodramatic plot twists of even more betrayals and secrets. It dissipates the dramatic energy, and what has the potential for a tightly-wound drama becomes a familial trainwreck for rubbernecking.
Director Benny Sato Ambush seems to be wrestling with focus, as well, as he wastes some great moments on stage. This play works best with the quiet conversations between John and Simon, as the two men wrestle with the moral and practical quandaries of freedom. The chemistry between the actors Davenoport and Mascoll is profound, and I could just watch their characters discuss stealing eggs and be enlightened about the human condition. But Ambush pushes the drama to the hilt from the very first beat of the play, when Caleb enters the house with a scream timed perfectly with a thunder clap. Hinson also seems to push too hard to wrench the drama out of each scene, and he makes Caleb unredeemable and, more gravely, unreachable with his vibrato-filled delivery.
In the end, it’s a golden opportunity missed to explore love, hate, forgiveness, and reconciliation. And we don’t get such opportunities nearly enough.