Gotta Serve Somebody: Syracuse Stage's "The Whipping Man"

Gregory Perri (Caleb), Jonathan Peck (Simon), and Biko Eisen-Martin (John) in the Syracuse Stage production of The Whipping Man. Photographer Michael Davis.  The Whipping Man

Who: Syracuse Stage

Where: 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, NY

When: Through Feb. 16

Tickets: $18-52

Reviewed by Jessica Cabe

America in the 1860s was not all black and white. 

The details of that tumultuous time in the country’s history are often lost in favor of blanket statements about good and evil. It’s easy to believe every slave was worked or beaten half to death at any opportunity and that every slave owner saw his slaves as property, inhuman and inconsequential.

Syracuse Stage’s production of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man explores the gray areas of the Civil War era that are often difficult to acknowledge. Everything from religion, to slave-master relationships, to reasons for fighting, are explored in all their intricacies.

The play is set in Richmond, Va., in April 1865, shortly after the Confederacy surrendered to the Union. Caleb (Gregory Perri), a Confederate soldier, stumbles home to find his house deserted but for his former slave, Simon (Jonathan Peck). Soon, another former slave, John (Biko Eisen-Martin), returns to the house with items he looted from neighbors.

These three men are the only actors that appear on stage, placing a heavy burden on them to carry the play. All three are impressive in their own way — Perri’s stubbornness is believable, Peck’s final scene is chill-inducing, and Eisen-Martin plays a convincing drunk without going over-the-top.

But ultimately the three men lack an intimacy that is necessary to engage the audience throughout this difficult play. There is very little action; the entire show takes place in the same space. Caleb is badly hurt from an infected bullet wound, and he ends up losing his leg from the knee down. This confines him to his ransacked, leaky house, and it turns out John and Simon are more or less trapped there for their own reasons.

Gregory Perri (Caleb) and Biko Eisen-Martin (John) in the Syracuse Stage production of The Whipping Man. Photographer Michael Davis.

Because the play is driven by dialogue and tough subjects — What is freedom? Can a white slave owner love his slaves? Why did Southern men fight the North? — it rests entirely on the actors’ ability to connect with one another. There simply was not enough vulnerability from any of the men to sell the story completely to the audience. There was a little too much overacting, taking us out of the story and constantly reminding us that this is not real life.

For example, Perri tends to shout his lines even when the situation calls for a normal, conversational volume. An art of acting is understanding the space in which you’re working and having a grasp on how much you must project. Although Caleb is a somewhat angry character, Perri’s over-the-top yelling didn't do the complex soldier justice.

That said, the play is so strongly written that the performance is still enjoyable. The play can be boring at times due to its lack of action, but the overarching themes will leave you thinking about The Whipping Man for days after you’ve left the auditorium.

One of the most interesting and provocative subjects the play explores is the relationship between a slave and his master. John taunts Caleb with his new freedom by asking if he should still call Caleb “Master.” Caleb says John has never called him that. Caleb’s mother even taught John how to read for a while, and Simon lived with his whole family; they weren’t separated like slaves often were.

It brings up a fact about the pre-Civil War era that is difficult to grapple with. The relationship between a master and his slave was not always one of obvious or blatant disrespect. But as the play progresses, we come to understand that where one man is free and another is not, there cannot be any real friendship, any real love.

The Whipping Man is a slow burner, but one that won’t leave your head for days. It asks questions that will make you uncomfortable, and it won’t always provide concrete answers. But it will shed light on a period in American history, giving you a greater understanding of where we are today and how we got here.