If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

"The Whipping Man" at Hartford Stage

A tall, striking shadow approaches the burnt-out remnants of a Virginia mansion in the tense opening moments of “The Whipping Man”, Matthew Lopez’s intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying new play currently making its Connecticut premiere at Hartford Stage. Directed with flashes of theatricality by Hana S. Sharif, the Civil War drama is in its final performances this weekend.

Set just after the war, “The Whipping Man” introduces three characters: Caleb (Josh Landay), a Jewish confederate soldier and the two former slaves he grew up with -- Simon (a terrific Leon Addison Brown) and John (Che Ayende), who were also raised as Jews. Caleb has suffered significant wounds which necessitate his leg to be amputated by Simon with assistance by John. The uneasy alliance between the three characters -- two of whom have suddenly become free men -- and the secrets and lies that are gradually revealed between them come to light during a climatic Passover celebration.

Although Mr. Lopez’s drama begins strong and promises some fascinating debate about the nature of freedom and the costs that it entails, Ms. Sharif’s production is more tentative -- all build-up with little payoff. The climatic revelations here take a while to materialize and, when they do, there’s a definite let-down. Part of the problem may lie in the casting. Mr. Brown, so memorable from the theatre’s magnificent “Orphans’ Home Cycle” of plays, fares best as the wise and generous Simon. Playing the younger roles, however, both Mr. Landay and, in particular Mr. Ayende, fall too easily into the play’s melodramatic flourishes and give broader, less truthful performances.

Ms. Sharif’s staging includes some odd touches including the use of bombastic sound and lighting cues more appropriate for a “Friday the 13th” sequel than a Civil War drama. She also doesn’t quite know how to deal with the expansive mansion setting -- brilliantly designed and detailed by Andromache Chalfant. Much of the set is barely used and, when it is, it includes some needless and somewhat confusing business of stolen merchandise (by John) tossed through various windows. The set may be one of Hartford Stage’s most accomplished, but it seems overwhelming for a small, three-character drama that could use far more intimacy. That said, Linda Cho’s costumes, Marcus Doshi’s lighting and Broken Chord’s original music and sound design still maintain their usual high standards in Hartford.

Note: Theatergoers are forewarned in the program about that amputation sequence and well they should be. It happens early and is gruesome and admirably authentic. Also admirable is the theatre’s current lobby exhibit celebrating the three-decade career of resident draper Barry Sellers. Mr. Sellers has created over 1,000 costumes covering almost 200 productions and some of his best work is on display. If you come for the play, stay longer for the exhibit!

“The Whipping Man” continues at Hartford Stage through March 18. For further information and ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org..

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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