It is customary to wish a performer well by uttering the old theater saying, "Break a leg!" But that may not be the best good luck charm for actor Shawn Fagan, whose character Caleb's shattered leg is amputated onstage in the first few minutes of The Whipping Man, now at the Cleveland Play House.
Set in Virginia one day after General Robert E. Lee's Civil War surrender, Fagan plays Caleb DeLeon, rebel soldier and scion of a wealthy Jewish family. He's just returned from the fighting to his mostly abandoned manse. It is there, dragging a leg shot through with gangrene, that he encounters two of his family's former slaves.
The amputation is just one of the startling moments in this intense three-hander. And while the script is not particularly inventive with the conflicts engendered by sudden freedom from slavery, leaning on some stereotypes in the process, the production fizzes with a trio of energetic, spot-on performances.
Playwright Matthew Lopez has set his work atop a trenchant historical juxtaposition: In April 1865, the Civil War is ending just as Jews are observing Passover, their annual celebration of Israelites being freed from bondage in Egypt. This forms the foundation for a play in which all three characters have suddenly found themselves in a new and largely incomprehensible world.
Caleb's family has fled their ruined home, along with most of their Virginia neighbors. Simon, the DeLeons' older and wiser slave, is waiting to be reunited with his family, while young and impulsive John is looting nearby mansions, piling up booty with a mixture of rage and glee.
Director Giovanna Sardelli knows this material well, since she first directed the show two years ago at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. And it shows in this well-oiled production that reveals family secrets with an almost metronomic regularity.
Simon and John, having been imbued over the years with the Jewish religion by their masters, are trying to find a way to cobble together a Passover Seder from the meager food stores in their possession. Caleb, now flattened by the emergency surgery performed by Simon and John, has lost his hold on these two men, along with his life in full.
As one of the characters notes, "No one chooses their family." And it couldn't be truer in this case, as the two African-Americans battle their feelings of familial closeness with Caleb. Even though those ties were forged and maintained through physical abuse (thus the title), they begin to explore the true meaning of liberty.
In the rather trite Morgan Freeman-like role of the sage black man, Russell G. Jones exudes quiet authority over the other characters. And Avery Glymph, lean as a sword and just as edgy, turns what could be a predictable John into a loose cannon that continually threatens to upset more apple carts.
As secrets are revealed and hidden connections among the three are exposed, Fagan's Caleb grows in depth. And playwright Lopez crafts these scenes with skill, finding multiple ways to explore small facets of his challenging theme.
But the script never dives as deeply as it might into the sweet torture that freedom (from slavery as well as from ownership of other human beings) has imposed on these men. Another major gap is the absence of any references to how a slave-owning Jewish family in Virginia existed in a region and time where anti-Semitism was rampant.
As a result, the work feels almost truncated — stopped just when further insights could elevate the play into the stratosphere. Still, The Whipping Man will grab hold of you and not let go. And that is no small feat.