There is a scene in Manhattan Theatre Club’s post-Civil-War-set drama The Whipping Man in which a Confederate captain named Caleb (Jay Wilkison) has his leg cut off to prevent a week-old gangrenous bullet wound from killing him. He’s not in the hospital or being operated on by a doctor. He’s in his childhood home, which he’s just hobbled back to from the dwindling fighting. His surgeon is one of his father’s newly freed slaves, Simon (Men of a Certain Age‘s Andre Braugher), the burned-out house’s only occupant, who served briefly as an orderly at a medic station during the war. The only thing more harrowing than the amputation — performed with a saw and depicted in full view from the first cut to the last bit of exposed bone — is the makeshift physician’s instructions to his ad hoc nurse, a younger slave named John (André Holland), on how to fashion the stump: ”We take the skin from his leg and we cut it, we pull it back. Like pulling the husk off of corn.”
It’s one of the many moments in The Whipping Man that could be gross, needless, or overly dramatic but just isn’t — and this is a show that includes revelations about murder, desertion, brutal whippings, illicit sex, and unwanted pregnancies. The plot revolves around the gimmick of a Jewish soldier/slave owner (yes, they existed, according to the show’s historical adviser, a Brandeis Jewish History professor) who retreats to his family’s Richmond town house and ends up celebrating Passover with two of their emancipated Jewish slaves (yep, they’re based on fact too) while waiting for his parents to return.
Playwright Matthew Lopez, an Episcopalian, claims to have found his inspiration after reading about Jewish Southerners coincidentally observing Passover (which commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt) at the end of the Civil War. Yet, he wisely never relies too much on the pat connection between African-American and Jewish slaves or the irony of Caleb being a Jewish slave owner. Instead, Lopez delivers a David Mamet-style three-hander in a historical setting, with a trio of men talking out their shaky relationships in the midst of a major crisis. And what talking they do — in smart, chatty dialogue that ranges from rhythmic to biting to funny. (At one point, John comments on some pilfered whiskey: ”’Stealing’ is when someone has gone to great lengths to protect something. That was not the case with this, although there was a case of this.”)
It helps, of course, that the acting is superb. Wilkison’s Caleb is meek and useless but not pitiful. Holland (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) is the true breakout, deftly making John intelligent, selfish, and deceitful though never hateful. And Emmy winner Braugher portrays Simon as trusting without ever seeming dumb or silly — a key fact, since the play’s final, shocking two twists are major secrets he’s been sitting on for years. Sure, the finale borders on soap-operatic predictability, but like the amputation scene that comes before, it’s devastating. A-
(Tickets: Citycenter.org or 212-581-1212)