Sunday, March 17, 2013

the whipping man

I was captivated even before The Whipping Man started last night at the Gerding Theater.

Down across the darkened stage, in the little arched window over the front door of the DeLeon house, I could already see the rain. A hint of glitter across the glass. I felt smart for noticing - and then wondered if they'd "turned on" the rain this early just to give people something to feel smart for noticing. As it turned out, the rain was an almost constant element in Portland Center Stage's production of The Whipping Man, a perfect constant, reminding me of the harshness of the world and the fragile safety of home but also helping create the intense crucible that this particular home was intended to be.

The rain also reminded me of the Noah flood story. And the plagues of Egypt during the Exodus. Because this play, which takes place just following the South's surrender at the end of the Civil War, concerns two former slaves and one former master, all who follow the Jewish faith. Caleb DeLeon, a Confederate soldier, returns home, wounded and in agony, on the eve of the Passover. The only folks left in the house are Simon and John, two former slaves, newly liberated and still coming to terms with their freedom as well as their past. The end of slavery seen through the prism of the Jewish faith is great irony, of course, as illustrated perfectly when former slave Simon [Gavin Gregory] officiates the DeLeon Passover Seder by singing:

Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt's land, tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.

It's really thought-provoking stuff, but the Jewish-slave connection isn't the entire heart of the story. There are also loads of secrets and loads of tension between these three complex, fully-realized characters. I thought the acting was superb. I last saw Gavin Gregory in the campy musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and I'm amazed at how beautifully differently he played the two parts. Carter Hudson as wounded soldier Caleb is a master at portraying pain, both mental and physical, and Christopher Livingston gives the young John a great mix of bitterness and humor.

The set is magnificent. The beautiful ruin of an antebellum home - so finely detailed and so realistic, at least to my layman's eye. Shadow and rain and evocative lighting direction make it even better.

As a pretty staunch atheist with a fascination for the Bible, I had an interesting reaction during the Seder that played out in the second half of the production. During the first act, Simon tells Caleb you can't be a fair-weather friend to God. I don't remember how he actually puts it, but that's the basic idea. Caleb has lost his faith on the battlefield, says he searched for God, besought God, and God wasn't there. Knowing [even on a small scale] what the soldiers of the Civil War went through, what the slaves of the South went through, it seems almost laughable that Simon would defend a faith in any god. But for just a moment, later, during that Seder, I believed him.

Not that there was a God - I didn't suddenly believe that God is a real thing - but just as you can have faith in a fictional character you read in a book or watch on stage, I had a sudden faith that the God of the world of The Whipping Man did exist there. I can't even remember today what specific bit of story, what bit of dialogue provoked the reaction in me. I just know that it hit me so unexpectedly that I nearly missed one of the big surprises in the play [a surprise that would eventually lead to what was, for me, one of the most satisfying endings in any play I've seen] because I was busy having whatever is the opposite of a crisis of faith.

Maybe it was the Sazerac I drank at intermission.

But God was somewhere in there.

The Whipping Man is still playing at Portland Center Stage - but only through March 23. You can check it out here.

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