Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Whipping Man—Portland Center Stage—Pearl District, Portland, OR

The Birth of a New Nation
This production is playing at PCS until March 23rd.  The theatre is location at 128 NW 11th Ave.  The show is written by Matthew Lopez and directed by Rose Riordan.  For further information go to www.pcs.org or call 503-445-3700 for tickets.

The story of the Civil War has, indeed, been rehashed and retold many times.  But this interpretation does offer some different perspectives on the aftermath of it.  It looks at three human beings, two Afro-Americans, former slaves, and a Rebel soldier, returning home.  It explores the relationship of these three men in this new, but foreign, emancipated world.  The White man is no longer King or Master, and the Black man, no longer a slave or piece of property.  But, since they are not now on familiar ground, what is the new landscape to look like?  Where does one go and what does one do when vomited out of Hell?

And these gentlemen are not only in a type of role reversal but also self-declared Jews, as well.  For Caleb (Carter Hudson) it is a mantle he discards, declaring that no God would have allowed such devastation as this War produced.  For Simon (Gavin Gregory) it is a solemn duty, to be upheld even in the direst of circumstances.  And for John (Christopher Livingston) it is simply something to do until the next thing comes along.  They represent three viewpoints of this upheaval:  The disheartened, Caleb, the hopeful, Simon, and the schemer, John.

Their plight is not unlike the Jews, slaves of an Egyptian Pharaoh, who fled his oppression and into the Promised Land.  But, after that…what?!  The same dilemma faces these men.  What to do in this brave, new world?  How to co-exist in a civilized manner within these new structures?  Tread lightly or be trodden?  Questions asked then and, to this day, without any completely, satisfactory answers.  A world still evolving, perhaps.

The play opens with Caleb, a wounded Confederate soldier, returning to his home plantation, now in ruins from the war.  Simon, the Master’s, Caleb’s father, old retainer has stayed on, waiting for the return of his wife and daughter, who have fled with the owners.  Into this uneasy alliance appears John, an angry, younger former slave ready to take revenge on the old guard.  The enslaver is now dependant on his former charges for his survival.  Will this respite be plied with pity, vengeance or kindness?

They all have feet of clay.  Simon is longing for the return of his family, of restoring a world, forever changed, to his version of normalcy.  A man with a good heart in a world, gone bad.  Caleb, having lost faith in God, is seeking his status in the resurrected South.  And John, a thief and murderer, is desperately trying to avenge himself on wrongs committed against him, looking at this new horizon through blood-colored glasses.  Can such creatures exist peacefully, side by side in this impossible Eden?

As the play progresses, we discover the plight of Simon’s family, the real reason for Caleb’s homecoming, the fate of the Whipping Man (the Punisher of misdeeds by the slaves) and some new connections between these three, intrepid travelers.  The script by Mr. Lopez is unrelenting is its discovery of truth and, except for a couple of slow spots, is very well rendered by the director, Ms. Riordan, and its players.

The entire cast is excellent.  Mr. Gregory, as Simon, touchingly conveys the complexities of his character, trying to balance the reality of the situation with the ideal, which he seeks.  Mr. Hudson, as Caleb, is so convincing in portraying the physical pain his character is in, that the audience cringes at his every howl.  And Mr. Livingston, as John, is electrically charged as he explodes on the stage, ranting and railing at injustices.  All three  are dynamos with no stopping them!

And some special kudos must go to the scenic designer, Tony Cisek, for his fantastic and utterly realistic set!  It is displayed with such authenticity that one feels they can walk onto it and into another world.  And the rain effects were especially powerful.  My friend, who came with me, said she has grown cold and had to put on her coat.  It was not, I believe, the temperature in the theatre, but the chilling rain effects that cooled the air for her.

I would recommend this production.  But be warned of rough language and adult themes.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.