The Rebirth of Cool

For years, whenever anybody said the words Caldwell Theatre, I thought of money, dancing girls, big production numbers, jukebox musicals, innocuous social commentary, musty classics, occasional glimmers of inspiration, screeching hearing aids, and old people.

It hadn't always been thus. When Caldwell opened under the leadership of Executive Artistic Director Michael Hall in 1975, Hall — a geeky-sexy lad who looked a little like Clark Kent — avowed his commitment to producing "challenging" off-Broadway material as well as musicological lollipops. That he did.

But one man's challenge has a way of turning into another man's cheese. Although Hall never abandoned his commitment, neither did his theater keep pace with the times. Caldwell has been a staid sort of company since I first visited in 2002, and with a few exceptions (most notably a 2007 production of Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House), its mandate was as consistent as it was dull: to stage well-produced, respectable but aging plays for a well-heeled, respectable but aging audience. At Caldwell, you could find Elvis retrospectives, the works of James Goldman, She Loves Me, and Doubt: a little something for everyone, neither aggressively stupid nor aggressively controversial.

Well, Hall's retired now, and I am grinning when I tell you that Clive Fucking Cholerton is in charge. The Whipping Man, by Adam Lopez, is the second show of his run as EAD, and at this moment in South Florida theater, there is nobody stomping on the terra with such ferocity as he. His first show, Vices, was a bracing, hypermodern musical investigation of obsession, addiction, and love. That show was a big surprise, coming from Caldwell, and The Whipping Man tops it. This new play is an examination of the relationship between two former slaves and their former master in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. Heady stuff, if not treated superficially, and The Whipping Man is anything but superficial. It digs, painfully and shockingly, right down to the marrow.

Caleb de Leon (Nick Duckart) is a wealthy young Jewish man from Richmond, Virginia. He comes home from the war with a bad case of gangrene and an even worse case of historical whiplash. His old manse (a gorgeous wreck by Tim Bennett) is dilapidated, pillaged, and barely inhabitable. Still in residence, long after de Leon's family has flown, is ex-slave Simon (John Archie), trying to keep the place together and do good work for the family that once claimed to own him. For his trouble, Simon has been promised, by Caleb's father, money to begin his free life once the elder de Leon returns home.

What amazing thoughts must fly through Simon's mind as he sets about tending to young Caleb's wounds — of loyalty, of vengeance, of love, of forgiveness. They are all there, at war with one another, seething beneath the mask of Archie's carefully solicitous performance. The forced jolliness of his gruff, smoke-whiskey voice is both perfectly pitched and perfectly hollow. What the truth of his feelings toward his former master might be are impossible to discern, and he may not even know himself. So he'll play his part, keep the place together, bide his time, and wait for a paycheck.

Problem is, there is an exceptionally disruptive presence in the crumbling de Leon household. John — or Nigger John, as he is called (played by Brandon Morris) — has just returned from a brief absence with armloads of stolen goods. Caleb and Simon are happy for the goods — there's not much left in postwar Virginia, and one must do what one must do — but John's lawlessness is a little too feral for their comfort. Although Simon has consigned himself to making nice with his former bondsmen, John's not sure he wants to. Or can. There's a scary/funny little gleam in his eye, and you sense that he's not quite together.

Indeed, he's not. He's mad as hell. Growing up, he took a lot of shit. He was disciplined more and took more trips to the shack of the titular whipping man than any of the other de Leon slaves. There, he was subjected to a hideously dehumanizing treatment that, now, he must somehow respond to. But he is not a mean person, nor is Caleb a bad man. They are merely frustrated and heartbroken, for as the play demonstrates, even freedom isn't all that freeing.

The Whipping Man is a portrait of people enslaved by their time and place nearly as completely as they'd been enslaved by men. And despite an ending that borders on hackneyed, it is full of human moments so real, so very likely to have been repeated in house after house in the newly liberated South, that they steal your breath. This, you will feel, is all true. Watch as Caleb, in a moment of drunken nostalgia, tells Simon that when the elder de Leon returns, "Things will be just like they were before!" Then watch his eyes fill with fear as he realizes exactly what he's said.

Backs stiffen through the theater, and there are a few seconds of extremely heavy silence before Simon says, gently but sternly: "No. Not just like before." Clenched lungs deflate, and the room is full of sighs.

You won't see many moments like that one on a stage. Nor are you likely to ever again hear the voice of a work-worn old slave, Simon, intoning the Kiddush and recounting the Exodus. For the de Leons' religious affiliations were passed along to their slaves as totally as were those of Christian slave owners, and The Whipping Man is set at the beginning of Passover. When Simon recounts the Exodus during the slaves' Seder, you know it counts for something. In his cracked and broken voice is the sound of more than celebration: There is the sound of understanding, of communion between actor and character and script and the ancient text it contains.

The Whipping Man is a wonderful play for this single scene and for a dozen others. See it and feel rare things. And when the specific effects of this play wear off, take a few seconds to marvel at the happy fact that in Boca Raton, at the Caldwell's grand digs, a powerful voice in South Florida theater is just beginning to clear his throat.