War changes men. Faith changes men. Family changes men. These are a few of the themes central to THE WHIPPING MAN, the Civil War-era drama playing at Cleveland Play House's Second Stage through December 2nd.
It's April 1865. The Civil War is ending and Passover is starting. Wounded Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon returns to his family's Virginia home to find the house looted and in ruins. Simon and John, two of the family's former slaves, are still living in the house and must work together to care for the badly injured Caleb. Over the course of three days, the men unearth secrets about their pasts and their present. Some revelations are known, some revelations are unknown. They discuss faith and share a makeshift Seder Plate to celebrate Passover. They discuss the bond of family and the struggles of family. They discuss war and slavery and how both can change a man forever. In the end, the audience is taken on an emotional roller coaster ride that will bring them to laughter and to tears.
The cast of three – Shawn Fagan, Avery Glymph and Russell G. Jones – play off each other with ease and comfort. Every moment between them seems spontaneous, unrehearsed. In the intimate Second Stage, the audience sits mere inches away from the performance space and getting to see these men up close and personal while fully embodying their characters is a delight.
As Caleb, Shawn Fagan portrays a man coming to terms with the reality of fighting in a war. His scars are deeply physical and deeply emotional. He's also coming to terms with the reality of his family. Growing up, he thought he knew everything about his parents and the way they managed the slaves working in their house but he quickly learns he was wrong. Fagan's performance balances the jaded and naïve sides of Caleb's personality, revealing layer after layer of the character.
Avery Glymph's John is a young man searching for his place in the world. He's intelligent, reading any book he can get his hands on, yet he flits through life as a petty thief. He came to the DeLeon estate as a young child and immediately paired up with Caleb, becoming best friends when they were little. John finds himself in trouble more often than not and is repeatedly sent to the whipping man for punishment. It eventually breaks him. In the hands of Glymph, John gives a first impression of being a tough man – one that doesn't care what anyone else thinks, one that is only worried about himself. As the play moves forward though, John becomes a man that reveals his emotional core.
Simon is the leader of the house and Russell G. Jones gives a solid, confident performance. Simon's Jewish faith is strong and he's looking forward to buying a house to share with his family now that slavery is coming to an end. He's truly concerned about Caleb and John and wants them to do something positive with their lives. Being older, he's been privy to many details about life at the DeLeon house that Caleb and John are otherwise unaware of and he eventually brings them to the forefront. Jones' performance is full of emotional highs and lows. He infuses Simon with compassion, humor and pride.
Matthew Lopez's script is a rollercoaster of revelations that twists and turns when you least expect it. Under the direction of Giovanna Sardelli, the pace never lags and keeps the audience on The Edge of its seat waiting to see what happens next. The entire design crew – set, sound, lighting and costumes – combine to create the detail-oriented period setting in which Caleb, Simon and John reside.
The run of THE WHIPPING MAN was extended early on due to high demand for advance ticket sales and Clevelanders are spreading excellent word-of-mouth buzz about it. This is the type of show that sticks with you, the type of show that you'll be thinking about days later. Do yourself a favor and see it before it closes.
THE WHIPPING MAN runs through December 2nd. Tickets range from $49 to $69. Purchase tickets online at www.clevelandplayhouse.com or through The PlayhouseSquare box office at 216.241.6000. The Second Stage Theatre is located at 1407 Euclid Avenue, inside Cleveland Play House's theatre complex.