Penumbra's The Whipping Man takes on life after Civil War

Free men are still shackled by history in <i>The Whipping Man</i>

Free men are still shackled by history in The Whipping Man

Anyone in this moment could be forgiven for harboring the creeping apprehension that the American experiment has slid off the rails, that too many past bills have come due, and that our latest bid for a comeback amounts to straightening the drapes after the rest of the house has been looted and carried off. There's a sense in the air of dark winds that have been swirling for a very long time—as Dylan put it, "all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem."

While Penumbra Theatre, for all its ambition, hasn't asked to bear the burden of American history, it seems lately to be taking a decent stab at it, through its recent visceral August Wilson productions and now Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man.

We evoke Wilson's ghost only to praise it, and to set the man's writing in contrast to this dark, unsettling, and (in comparison) economical incarnation. It is no insult to either Wilson or Lopez to observe that The Whipping Man's script is both a tauter and less piercing take (compared to, say, Wilson's The Piano Lesson) on the greatest mind-fuzzing, ineluctable cruelty in American history: the fact that, not so long ago, significant numbers of us were the property of others.

The action opens in Richmond, Virginia, in the immediate aftermath of Appomattox. Caleb (Joseph Papke) bursts through the front door of his family home, fresh from the battlefield and with a week-old bullet wound in his leg. He finds the place ransacked, with everyone gone save for onetime slave Simon (James Craven), now a free man. The two slip into easy familiarity, though when Caleb begins ordering Simon around, the elder man reminds his former master, with understated firmness, that the time has come for requests to replace commands.

Next on the scene is John (Duane Boutte), a mercurial spirit who grew up with Caleb from the time they were boys. John is riddled with jittery energy, unmoored by his sudden emancipation, engaged in a prolonged bender, and gathering the neighbors' belongings with prodigiously sticky fingers (with delight, he finds new ways to describe how he acquired the things he "found," "stole," "discovered," and "liberated").

Director Lou Bellamy has an agile, contentiously soulful three-man cast to work with here. After Simon utilizes heavy hardware to treat Caleb's wound (setting off a lot of squeaky seats in the audience from squirming posteriors), Caleb is immobile. He responds with withering glares, and Papke allows us to see this new cripple trying to grasp, on numerous levels, his lost power. Craven's Simon is reserved and pragmatic, anchoring the moment's delicate combination of apocalypse and salvation.

Boutte, as John, delivers the ruins of what was once clearly an ebullient soul since hollowed out by continual contradiction; he beams flashes of loving humor at those close to him, then pulls down the shades and retreats into some disturbingly comfortable cellar deep within. All the while the outside world closes in and, for each of these three men, those paths that are not dead ends are at least perilously uncertain.

The second act revolves around the trio sharing an impromptu Seder, the wrinkle here being that the slave-owning Virginia family was Jewish and raised their slaves in the faith. That carries tremendous weight as metaphor, of course, with the whiplash irony between the roles of pharaoh and slave finally hitting Caleb squarely between the eyes just about the time his conscience finally overwhelms him.

No nation's story is without ambiguity, or an ample portion of wrong. But any pretense that the legacy of human bondage has been absolved on these shores is at best naive and at worst self-serving. Penumbra's The Whipping Man reminds us who we are, at a moment in which we're compelled to figure out who we're going to be (however much we understand, or control, the winds of history, they seem to be at gale force once again).