Art necessarily takes on the issues of its own time, but it is in its processing of history that art often excels in feeding civilization. 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Carrboro ArtsCenter Stage has focused its season on that event and its long aftermath, beginning with a stunning production of The Whipping Man, a 2006 play by Matthew Lopez.
ArtsCenter Stage has always been the little theater that could, and this production proves once again that a tiny stage, nonexistent back-of-house and minimal staff cannot weaken the transformative power of drama. The Whipping Man is two hours long, and for many of those 120 minutes, you will be on the edge of your seat. The script's intricate folds open slowly; but during the second act, the intermittent popping of secrets becomes a fusillade leading to cannon-fire of explosive knowledge, which exposes both characters and audience in the fiery wreckage.
The story takes place over three days in April 1865, less than a week after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. As the play begins, we see Caleb DeLeon (Victor Rivera, moving effectively from callow and commanding to chastened awareness), dragging himself, grievously wounded, into the remains of his father's once-grand Richmond house (all the production design work is very strong). Caleb is a Jew and a Confederate soldier, and his parents have fled the city, which is now under Federal control. But two former slaves have remained in the house for their own reasons: Having been part of the household all their lives, they too are Jews. John is a young man, about Caleb's age; Simon is of a solid middle age, and the man without whom the household cannot run.
It is a season of mud and blood, of despair and rejoicing. And it is Passover.
Incisively directed by Mark Filiaci, with a restraint that makes late revelations all the more forceful, the three actors obliterate this time in a modern town and replace it with desperate days in ruined Richmond. This is not a play where you are forced to always keep in mind that it is a play. It is not art about art. The actors do not speak directly to the audience. They speak to us through the power of the dramatic story, and with their fearless acting.
Led by Phillip B. Smith as Simon, they make us know some essential things about that past and the way it has shaped our present. Without spelling them out, playwright Lopez has Simon engage us with a range of moral quandaries—what is good, what is right, what is necessary, what can be forgiven, what cannot be allowed to pass without counteraction? Simon holds the most knowledge of the three men, though he doesn't know everything he thinks he knows. He chivvies the feckless John (Alphonse Nicholson, again leaping ahead of himself in nuanced understanding), who's frittering his freedom liberating whisky, fancy clothes and piles of books; he saves Caleb's life; he feeds all three of them. And he insists on holding a Seder at Caleb's bedside, even though Caleb lost his faith in the trenches of Petersburg.
That Seder scene, with its celebrations and revelations, is one of the most powerful scenes I've ever witnessed on stage. Do not miss it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A night different from other nights."