DORSET, Vt. - With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's end fast approaching, the pitch of events in commemoration is building toward next year's crescendo. Dorset Theatre Festival's rendition of Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man," is a welcome addition to this fete: both an aesthetically beautiful play, and a thinking person's food to ameliorate the hunger of conscience.
Directed by Dorset's own artistic director, the inimitable Dina Janis, the play finds badly wounded Confederate officer Caleb (Michael Simpson) stumbling back to his family's dilapidated estate outside of Richmond, where his wounds are tended to by two of his father's former slaves, the young, free-wheeling malcontent John (Calvin Dutton) and the older, more steady Simon (Brian Anthony Wilson), who turns out to be a father figure of sorts to all, including the audience.
It turns out Simon's wife and daughter purportedly went off with Caleb's father, with the intent of returning. But their absence creates a tension that is at the center of this story, not to be spoiled here.
The estate's family was Jewish, and raised all their slaves as Jews. With Passover looming, the three men huddle in the house foyer to celebrate a Seder, the Jewish ritual feast that marks the start of Passover. What follows is not only the expected examination of race and religion - issues that remain to this day - but also more irony and twists than one playwright should be allowed to inject on stage.
Still, it works. It mesmerizes. It laments. Most importantly, it educates.
Simpson plays a fine Caleb in his moral introspection.
Family betrayed him. And love had him deliver perhaps the play's signature moment, the dream-like recounting of a love letter full of so much more than the customary tenderness and affection.
Dutton offered up an excellent John, who we come to know by play's end in several twists of fate that Lopez's genius foists on us unexpectedly. His role was also delightfully physical, with Dutton's ability to deliver timely humor in a serious moment brilliant in both timing and emotional relief.
Finally, Wilson, loved by TV audiences for his starring role on HBO's "The Wire," is the story's moral compass. His Simon is not only big in stature, but also in spirit and constancy. He was a rock, if you will, much as his Biblical namesake, another persona rife with the irony of denial and unshakeable faith. Lopez had him keep us on target, and Wilson pointed the way from start to end in impressive, powerful fashion.
Debra Booth's set was practical, but also convincing and haunting. Lights by Michael Giannitti added suspense at key, well-timed moments. So did sound by Jane Shaw, with the added treat of classic Negro spirituals reminding us of time and place throughout. Costume designer Charles Schoonmaker perfectly captured the widespread chaos of the immediate postwar South.
This was some show: a study in human nature, history and morals that would have made Plutarch, the master of blending all three, proud. Janis showed once again that she has not forgotten her roots below the executive level. In this production, as director she gets her hands dirty by squeezing the most out of her players - and the script handed her.
The Civil War was huge in expanse and more far reaching in societal influence. "The Whipping Man" somehow manages to take a small slice of it and tell much of the inner story. Go see this play, leave your contemporary sensibilities at the door, and be prepared to think.
"The Whipping Man" runs through July 20 at Dorset Theatre Festival. For tickets and information call 802-867-2223 or visit dorsettheatrefestival.org.