Civil War play soaked in metaphor and irritants

Cody Nickell (left), Johnnie Hobbs Jr., James Ijames in the play about a Southern Jewish soldier coming home, where only 2 freed slaves remain.
Cody Nickell (left), Johnnie Hobbs Jr., James Ijames in the play about a Southern Jewish soldier coming home, where only 2 freed slaves remain. (MARK GARVIN)
Posted: November 04, 2011

It was a dark and stormy night.

No, really. So dark and so stormy in the play The Whipping Man, or maybe just in Arden Theatre Company's production of it, that The Constant Metaphor blasts you from the first crash of thunder to the last flash of lightning, when mist and fog are rolling in through a door and rain pours through the show's sound design.

I was ducking by then, sure that the Arden stage crew would run through the aisles with buckets to drench us just in case anybody missed the point. But not me, I was so proud, I got it from the first minute: Things are sure wet and thunderous in Richmond, Va., during this Civil War play, and will be even stormier for the characters on stage and the nation at large. Pass me, please, on to Theater 102.

Before I join the rest of the upper-class kids, let me say that what's going on at the Arden is a by-and-large solid production of a by-and-large solid play, staged by the very busy director Matt Pfeiffer. The Whipping Man, by Matthew Lopez, was a hit Off-Broadway this spring, with an intriguing premise:

In the days after the South has surrendered, a horribly wounded Confederate soldier comes home to Richmond to find that the rest of the family has fled and only two slaves, now emancipated, remain. Just as the family is Jewish, so have the slaves been raised, and what's more it's Passover - commemorating the liberation of the Jews from Egyptian bondage, and now of these black Jews, from an American and, in this case, Jewish enslavement.

Parts of the play and Pfeiffer's production are highly absorbing, and the three actors - Cody Nickell as the soldier, and the estimable Johnnie Hobbs Jr. and James Ijames as the former slaves - are tip-top, despite Nickell's wandering in and out of a light Virginia gentleman's accent. The play asks questions about who's a slave and who is not, and to what, and its story line becomes more of a web as it moves forward.

Yet little jarring prickles, in both the play and the production, bugged me. Rising playwright Lopez can overwrite himself into trouble. His first scene, in which the servants remove part of the soldier's gangrenous leg, is a squeamish kickoff taken to a gratuitous level; the Arden picks up the scent of blood in the script, and I could sense some in the audience not wanting to be there as they shifted in their seats.

Lopez also gives the soldier a hard-to-accept poesy in the love letter he reads aloud at one point, and sets up a Passover seder that is beautifully bittersweet until it, too, is unbelievable in the words of the illiterate servant who now speaks like a Harvard Divinity School alum.

It doesn't help that one of the characters talks of being pissed off, a phrase etymologists can't find before the 1930s. As for the production, well, there's that constant metaphorical downpour, plus David P. Gordon's hauntingly decrepit-Southern-manse interior ruined by a cartoonish portal and door. Just as bad: the careful hair of Nickell, playing a soldier who walked through days of hell to get home. Did this last-legs guy hop in along the way for a quickie at Visions, one of Richmond's current upper-cut salons?

Oh picky, picky, picky, you may say - but what's at stake is a genuine feel. On stage, the magic, not the devil, is in the details.


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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