Jay Wilkison, Andre Braugher, and Andre Holland
in The Whipping Man
(© Joan Marcus)
Jay Wilkison, Andre Braugher, and Andre Holland
in The Whipping Man
(© Joan Marcus)
Two-time Emmy Award winner Andre Braugher heads a superb three-person cast in Mathew Lopez's The Whipping Man, being presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage 1. Doug Hughes has directed a top-notch production of this compelling Civil War-era drama, filled with fine characterization and unexpected moments of humor.

In the opening scene, set on April 13, 1865, wounded Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon (Jay Wilkison) stumbles into his home in Richmond, Virginia. The war has recently ended, and the only one there to greet him is his former slave Simon (Braugher), although it's not too long before they're joined by another of the household's ex-slaves, John (Andre Holland). Caleb's wounds call for drastic measures to prevent his death -- and a rather grisly scene early in the play may leave some audience members feeling queasy.

The timing of the play's action coincides with the Jewish holiday of Passover. Caleb lost his faith in the trenches and sees no reason to celebrate, but Simon and John -- who were raised in the DeLeon family's Jewish faith -- are eager to hold a Seder, particularly as the freeing of the Jews from slavery in Egypt is a potent parallel to their own newly liberated condition.

Lopez provides plenty of twists and turns in his story, and as each new revelation comes to light, the information the audience learns is bound to affect their opinions of the characters. Additionally, the three men must negotiate the altered power dynamics of this post-slavery era, even as events from their pasts affect the way they deal with one another in the present.

Braugher's Simon is the most grounded of the three characters, and the actor suffuses his portrayal with a hard-won dignity and sense of hope. Now that he's a free man, Simon is quick to point out to Caleb that "All these things you're telling me to do, by rights now you need to be asking me to do." And yet, he continues to measure his responses when it comes to his former master, up until the climactic scene in which Simon finally gives in to more impassioned emotions.

Wilkison manages the difficult task of maintaining a measure of audience empathy, even as Caleb's past starts to catch up with him and he has to take a hard look at his own culpability in the institution of slavery. Holland projects a bright and sunny demeanor throughout much of the play, but just underneath it is anger, resentment, and fear, which bubble up to the surface at choice moments.

The production is supported by an excellent design team. In particular, Ben Stanton's atmospheric lighting credibly mimics both the effects of a thunderstorm and the candlelight that is used as the primary source of illumination. Jill BC DuBoff's sound design is crucial in setting the tone of individual scenes, while John Lee Beatty's set baldly displays the fire-ravaged ruin of the DeLeon family home while still suggesting its former glory.