“The Whipping Man” at Oldcastle Theatre is a gem

“The Whipping Man” at Oldcastle Theatre is a gem

Dark, intellectual dramas have my heart; give me a show that makes me think long after I leave the theater and my day is made. Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man” delivers that and more, and Oldcastle Theatre’s production is utterly flawless.

It’s April 1865 in Richmond; the Civil War has just ended, and Caleb (Justin Pietropaolo) has just returned home from fighting for the Confederacy with a severe leg injury. His childhood home has been mostly destroyed, and the only people left there are two of his slaves – who are now free men: Simon (Herb Parker), a wise older man, and John (Brandon Rubin), a young man who grew up with Caleb. The three men are waiting for Caleb’s father to return home with Simon’s wife and daughter, and as this is a Jewish household, observe Seder together, celebrating the freeing of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, even as Simon and John are celebrating their own freedom. Secrets, however, are lurking in the shadows of the ruined mansion, and start to emerge as time passes.

Carl Sprague’s set design is breathtaking; just a hint, here and there, of the ruins of this once-grand home, but what an effect they have. A twisted, destroyed staircase; stained furniture in a heap; grand windows and doors with panes shattered and missing. David W. Groupé’s lighting design is also stunning – the rain that falls throughout the production is both gloomy and luminous, and the light on stage somehow perfectly mimics the light in an old home – gloomy, with an almost gray cast. The costume design, by Ursula McCarty, is perfection – from Caleb’s worn uniform to John’s stolen upper-class finery, a new piece every time he re-enters the home.

Eric Peterson’s direction is deft and daring; what a wonderful piece of art he’s created for us. This script is raw and painful, intelligent and honest, and he catches every last nuance. What a superb cast he has to work with, as well. Pietropaolo could easily be seen as the enemy here – a Jewish slave-owning southerner who fought to retain the right to own others? – but he manages to show us all of Caleb’s facets; we’re unable to paint him with such a broad brush. He has such a difficult role, both physically and emotionally, and does stellar work. Parker’s Simon is the heart of the piece; kind, patient, filled with hope and joy and promise – but when this is stripped away, the truth of the man behind it is crushing. His monologue about Abraham Lincoln is some of the most moving work in the piece. Rubin is an enigma, darting between cruelty and duty like a butterfly until we realize what drives him; his story and what’s been done to him – and what it’s driven him to do – is infuriating (and, sadly, timelier than it should be.)

The summer theater in the area is, as a whole, excellent, but there are some gems that just shouldn’t be missed, and this is most definitely one of them – you owe it to yourself to catch it.

“The Whipping Man”; Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St., Bennington, VT; through July 22; $65-$12; Run time: 2 hours and 5 minutes with a 15-minute intermission;802-447-0564;

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