Matthew Lopez's “The Whipping Man,” presented by the West Coast Jewish Theatre at the Pico Playhouse, is an unusual yet well-crafted drama written with the no-holds-barred emotionalism of vintageWillian Inge or Arthur Miller.
The play begins at the close of the Civil War, as the badly wounded Caleb (Shawn Savage) returns to his wealthy family's burned-out home in Richmond. Caleb's family has decamped for safer climes, and only two of their recently freed slaves – Simon (Ricco Ross) and John (Kirk Kelleykahn) -- remain behind. All are Jews, and although Caleb's faith has been shaken by the horrors of war, both Simon and John are still observant – Simon devoutly so.
Left bedridden after the amputation of a gangrenous leg, Caleb must come to a new accommodation with his past “property,” and they, in turn, must find their place in this new order. But when Simon orchestrates a Passover seder – particularly resonant in this context – bitter secrets are revealed that will split the trio apart.
Lopez's central conceit may seem far-fetched to some. Granted, there was an antebellum Jewish community in Richmond, and Lopez exploits that historical precedent to fervid effect. And if some of the play's many revelatory twists seem a bit unlikely, there's no question that the result is gripping.
Buoyed by an excellent production design, particularly Bill Froggatt's haunting sound, director Howard Teichman and a crackling cast render a near-optimum staging.
Although his character is somewhat simply rendered, Ross is especially effective as a saintly figure unsullied by bondage and war. Savage and Kelleykahn are also excellent as men coping with bitter pasts and uncertain futures.
With material this innately melodramatic, Teichman would have been well-advised to tamp down the histrionics just a tad. Sometimes an anguished whimper can be more effective than a full-throated scream.
"The Whipping Man," Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 13. $25-$35. (323) 821-2449. www.wcjt.org Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.