There is much to admire in Matthew Lopez’ The Whipping Man, playing now at Very Little Theatre. This atmospheric period drama is, without a doubt, the strongest work I’ve seen on the VLT stage.
Set in 1865 in Richmond, Virginia, at the moment when the Civil War has ended and the South’s in chaos, The Whipping Man explores deep themes of family, loss and the aching possibility of eternal faith.
Don’t let the historical setting fool you — this 2006 play, directed with ferocity and heart by Nancy Boyett, is prescient and contemporary.
In a production that rings true to time and place, Confederate officer Caleb DeLeon (Matthew Arscott) returns from the war wounded and starving. He’s looking for his family and finds them. Suffice it to say that Caleb returns to his disheveled home to find Simon (Stanley Coleman) and John (Dawaun Lawler) — two echoes of his past that shake his present.
It’s Passover. What? A Richmond family who? What is slavery? What is its meaning? How does it form and become a ritual? Become acceptable? How do we understand our ancient past — and our future — in the face of it?
Lopez asks these questions and many more in a performance that plays out unflinchingly. His plot devices are structured so well that we’re willing to take big leaps right along with him, swept up in the immediacy of secrets and revelations.
“Let all who are hungry come and eat,” Simon says. Coleman’s Simon commands with a lion’s gentleness throughout, slipping between roles of master and servant. His performance is simply stunning.
As Caleb, Arscott carries a well of hurt and confusion, paralleled by Lawler’s audacity and humor as John.
The set, designed by Darryl Marzyck, creates an apocalyptic antebellum, aided by Paula Tendick’s costumes and Tim Rogers’ sound. Michael Walker’s lighting sets the mood, closing in and reaching out. The lighting captures moments like a well-worn sepia photograph that a soldier — North or South — might pose for.
Hard to believe this play has just three characters. It seems so populated with ghosts of the past and a future not yet written.
The Whipping Man continues through Feb. 3 at Very Little Theatre; info and tickets at 541-344-7751 or TheVLT.com.