A house divided against itself cannot stand. Abe Lincoln said it on the eve of the Civil War, and it holds true for the DeLeon manse in the days just after. Onstage at the Manhattan Theatre Club is a grand home in tatters—broken windows, broken railings, walls stripped to bare boards. As a storm rages and lightning flashes, Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man owes more to Edgar Allan Poe than Stephen Crane.
Slavery is the ghost that haunts the piece. Following the surrender of the Confederacy, Captain Caleb DeLeon (Jay Wilkison) returns to his ruined Richmond residence to find his family gone and only two slaves remaining, Simon (André Braugher) and John (André Holland). Actually, these men are former slaves, as Simon gently reminds Caleb: “All the things you’re telling me to do, by rights now you need to be asking me to do.”
Lest this seem too familiar a tale, Lopez adds a twist. The DeLeons are Jews and have raised their slaves in that faith. At first, this seems little more than an excuse for smart remarks on whether horsemeat is kosher. But in the second act, Simon improvises a seder to celebrate Caleb’s return and his own liberation. The parallel situation of the Jews and African-Americans is evoked at first eloquently and then bluntly as Simon sings multiple choruses of “Go Down, Moses.”
Religious persuasion aside, Lopez has written a formulaic drama, but a wonderfully satisfying one. The action spools out elegantly as new revelations arise and characterizations deepen. Director Doug Hughes proves himself capable as ever, and you sense he enjoyed the play’s more gothic elements, such as an amputation scene. Wilkison evokes the wounds of war, both physical and psychic, and Holland is an antic presence as the reckless and bitter John. But Braugher is the reason to buy your ticket. Whether reciting blessings, dishing up traif stew, or removing a gangrenous leg, he renders every gesture humane and deeply felt. It’s a rare actor who can wield a hacksaw so mercifully.