by Hedy Weiss
'THE WHIPPING MAN'
When: Through Feb. 24
Where: Northlight Theatre, 9201 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Info: (847) 673-6300; www.northlight.org
Run time: 2 hours with one intermission
The Northlight Theater production of "The Whipping Man," Matthew Lopez's Civil War-era drama, is an example of how good actors (under the direction of Kimberly Senior) can work up a sweat trying to breathe life and authenticity into a well-intentioned but rather heavily contrived, often melodramatic script.
To be sure, Lopez (who has drawn on historical fact), deals with the period from a fascinating and relatively unusual angle, even if the essential twist in his storytelling turns out to be as old as the Old Testament -- and, in the final analysis, as new as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
It all begins as Caleb DeLeon (Derek Gaspar), a severely wounded young Confederate soldier from a prominent Southern Jewish family, staggers through the entrance of his family's grand but now heavily ruined and looted home in Richmond, Virginia in April, 1865. It is shortly after General Robert E. Lee has surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at nearby Appomattox Court, and just days before President Abraham Lincoln will be assassinated. For Jews, it also is the time of Passover, the holiday that commemorates the ancient Israelites' emergence from slavery in Egypt.
Only two former black slaves -- both of whom were in some form raised in the Jewish tradition of the DeLeon household -- remain on the premises, and both are adjusting to their freedom in different ways. Simon (rich work by Tim Edward Rhoze) is the wise, rational eminence gris, already planning to build a house for his wife and daughter, who, like everyone else in the area, fled the Union Army. John (stylish, sassy Sean Parris) is the younger, more angry, less settled but literate ex-slave -- adept at petty theft and dreaming of a move to New York.
But the first order of business here is an at-home amputation. Caleb's bullet-pierced leg is gangrenous and he does not want to go to a hospital for reasons that become clear only later. Simon, who has worked in clinics during the war, knows it must be sawed off, even if there is no ether available, and whiskey is in short supply.
The procedure is incredibly gruesome, but Caleb recovers remarkably easily. Only then does the even uglier "unfinished business" of the past begin to play itself out, with an ad hoc Passover seder (complete with non-kosher horse meat) the catalyst for discussions about the meaning (and responsibility) of freedom. Along the way there also is the revelation of a long-buried (but not unusual) "family" secret.
The atmospherics of this production are top-notch, with set designer Jack Magaw's distressed and battered interior (complete with rainstorm), Christine A. Binder's lighting, Christopher Kriz's sound and Rachel Laritz's costumes all capturing the ravages and deprivations of war.
To Lopez's credit, he does not put a neat ending on "The Whipping Man." As we well know, the conclusion of the Civil War was only the prologue to a drama that continues to play itself out nearly a century and a half later.