Can the master love the slave? This question sits at the core of the talky, philosophical first act of “The Whipping Man,” as two freed slaves and their former master wrestle over faith, freedom and the last of the bourbon in 1865 Virginia. Matthew Lopez’ play is a slow-paced, contemplative drama filled with long, uncomfortable — but nonetheless compelling — moments that force the characters to examine the lives they hope to build for themselves in the new world.
Devout family man Simon (Michael Shepperd) centers the play, dedicated to the family that once owned him but eager to begin his life anew as a free man. In an early scene, after his former master shouts at him to get water, he says firmly, “By all rights, what you’re telling me to do, you should be asking me to do.” He still fetches the water, but on his own terms and demanding the respect such an act of compassion deserves.
Caleb (Ryan Barry) swears his family was kind to their slaves, offering them the best lives they could’ve had in the Old South. Grievously injured fleeing the Civil War, he’s helpless without his former charges, eventually realizing he has been all along. Ryan Barry plays Caleb with a mercurial intensity, increasingly anxious, guilty and desperate as his illusions of how the world was (that slave owners were benevolent) and fears of how the world will be (the slaves freed, the South impoverished) collide, forming a deeply conflicted character and a solid performance.
John (Damian Thompson) has dreams of escaping to New York City following emancipation and starting fresh. But he’s selfish, a thief and a liar; for him, living freely means living only for himself. Thompson’s crisp comedic timing is effortless, but a key dramatic scene in act two — where John recounts a story involving the titular Whipping Man — he doesn’t manage to convey introspection. Unlike the rest of the play, it felt like acting. A minor quibble, but one that only goes to show how well (with a minimalist set, costuming and score) “The Whipping Man” and its crew crafted an immersive atmosphere.
The highlight is Shepperd. He dominates the stage. His is a charismatic, dynamic performance that remains grounded and believable. He portrays Simon as an imposing, physical force, a gentle father figure and a browbeaten old man with the weight of decades of servitude, and what happens after, on his shoulders. Simon illustrates how true acts of love and kindness only exist when people are on equal footing, a possibility that never existed in his life before emancipation. Early on, Simon says to John: “You’re not just serving in this world, you’re living in it.” The line resonates not because it means slaves have only recently stopped serving, but because they’ve only recently started living freely. What that means is, for the first time, up to them.
The play completes its run with performances at 7 p.m. Feb. 5, 8 p.m. Feb. 6-7 and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Feb. 8.