Theater has, and always will be about, taking risks, pushing boundaries, making audiences think.
The American musical has, as of late, taken chances. But dramatic plays, the really good ones, do it one better. Such is the case with Theatre Harrisburg’s next offering titled “The Whipping Man.”
Not familiar with it? You should be.
The premise is a surprising one—part fiction, part based on truth.
“The Whipping Man” goes back to when the Civil War in America just ended. It is Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the Biblical story of the Exodus and the freeing of the Israelites from slavery. In the play, Caleb, a wounded Confederate officer, has returned from the war to find his family missing but two former slaves remaining, slaves who had adopted their owners’ Jewish religion and customs. The slaves, Simon and John, are forced to care for Caleb as they wait for the family to return.
“We all know that there was a Civil War that tore this country apart,” said David Olmstead, director of the Theatre Harrisburg production. “We know that the slaves were freed. And suddenly the way of life that everyone knew has vanished.”
And then the big question, Olmstead added: “What do you do when you get the thing you most desired?”
That “thing” was the men’s newfound freedom. Olmstead says there was no rulebook or guide to direct those slaves. In “The Whipping Man,” the only thing all three men have in common is their Jewish faith.
“The playwright has done a beautiful job of weaving together the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the exodus of the former Southern slaves to freedom as they celebrate Passover for the first time as free men,” Olmstead said. “There are many ‘Oh, my gosh’ moments as each character frees secrets that have long been enslaved in their own hearts and minds.”
Three veteran local actors, David Payne, Jeremy Patterson and Bill McCarthy, perform the roles and, like their counterparts, Patterson and McCarthy have been real-life friends since boyhood.
“Every day with these guys is an inspiration as we make new discoveries about not just this play and characters, but also about ourselves,” Olmstead said. “We shared stories and bonded over whiskey and hardtack (a simple type of biscuit used for sustenance during military campaigns and during the Civil War). I’ve never had a cast so excited about research as I continually receive emails and text messages alerting to new discoveries they make or suggested films to view.”
Brett Bernardini, who took the theater’s helm as executive and artistic director last year, heard about “The Whipping Man” while he was working in New York. Many of his theater colleagues raved about it, but Bernardini was focused on staging new musicals at the time so wasn’t paying attention. Once he arrived in Harrisburg, he reached out to those colleagues, gave them his criteria for the season and asked for input. Again and again, the play, “The Whipping Man,” came up.
“After reading it several times in the same evening, I realized that this show had to be part of my first season at Theatre Harrisburg,” he said.
Bernardini feels that the playwright, Matthew Lopez, a Hispanic, gay, 30-something, can relate to the play’s themes of oppression and discrimination, even though the timeframe and the characters may be far removed from his own experiences.
“He doesn’t need these truths to be able to write a powerful and deeply moving play,” Bernardini added. “His ability to create dimensional characters, place them in a vivid and historical time period and then remove himself so that the characters can exist and interact is at the heart of playwrighting.”
“The Whipping Man” had its world premiere in 2006 and, since then, has played on stages from New York to California.
The play takes place during Passover, and, as is tradition, the youngest person at the seder table asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Audiences will find out why when they go see “The Whipping Man” at Theatre Harrisburg.
“The story of this play is both inspiring and heartbreaking,” Olmstead said. “You’ll share in their misery and rejoice in their liberation. And you’ll realize that we’ve come so far and still have a long way to go.”
“The Whipping Man” takes place Jan. 12 to 22 at Theatre Harrisburg’s Jay and Nancy Krevsky Production Center, 513 Hurlock St., Harrisburg. For more information, call 717-232-5501 or visit www.theatreharrisburg.com.
Author: Lori M. Myers