When you go to the theater, I suspect you focus on the actors. That’s as it should be, but it’s important to bear in mind that it’s the director who pulls a production together and evokes performances that add up to the larger whole.
This came to mind for me as I watched Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati’s production of The Whipping Man. Staged by D. Lynn Meyers, the newish play made its regional premiere at ETC on Jan. 25; it continues through Feb. 12.
Matthew Lopez’s play, set at the end of the Civil War in April of 1865, is about three men whose past lives converge again at a pillaged estate in Richmond, Va. Caleb has returned to his family home with a bullet in his leg; two former slaves — Simon and John — save his life by removing the gangrenous limb. (The ghastly amputation is represented but not sensationalized.)
As Caleb recovers, it’s time for Passover. His Jewish family raised their slaves in that faith and, while circumstances have changed dramatically, they decide to have a Seder, the traditional feast marking the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The irony is not lost on the newly freed slaves or their one-time owner, and the play is rife with revelations about past relationships and circumstances.
Meyers selected Jarred Baugh to play Caleb, a Confederate officer with some secrets, while Mark St. Cyr is John, Caleb’s boyhood companion who now plunders abandoned homes. Meyers put local actor Ken Early in the central role of Simon, who has served Caleb’s family with devotion but is now ready to live as a free man. Early, who has played small roles in recent ETC productions (holiday shows and the musical Grey Gardens in 2008), takes on this pivotal part with astonishing presence and power. The strength of Early’s performance can surely be attributed to Meyers’ direction.
He gives Simon a quiet but powerful dignity, even when Caleb continues to bark orders to him as if he were a slave. Simon reminds Caleb, “All these things you’re telling me to do, by rights now you need to be asking me to do.” The world has changed, and they are now equals. Early conveys a sense of responsibility based on history tempered with the knowledge that he now has choices.
Early’s performance is even more powerful in the second act. Simon comes back from a trip to the city with the stunning news that President Lincoln has been assassinated. He recalls once meeting him. He was abashed to be in the presence of “Father Abraham” and, not knowing what else to do, simply bowed. Lincoln returned the gesture.
Early tells this anecdote with such reverence and emotion that you can see it happening and understand its gravity for this simple, illiterate man. His faith, collecting the elements for the Seder — hard tack for matzah and so on — is evident. And despite the fact he cannot read, he memorized the words of the service in Hebrew and English. Early’s Simon convincingly proves himself to be a devout practitioner of Judaism.
The Whipping Man offers powerful acting in the service of moving storytelling. I apply a Critic’s Pick to this production. Lynn Meyers has drawn a memorable performance from Ken Early, one that’s truly worth seeing.
Other Worthy Current Productions:
• Dead Accounts at the Cincinnati Playhouse is a world-premiere script by Theresa Rebeck, who grew up in Kenwood and graduated from Ursuline Academy. She’s now a successful playwright (her script Seminar is currently running on Broadway) and a TV writer/producer (she’s shaping the TV series Smash, which debuts Monday on NBC, about the creation of a Broadway musical). Rebeck calls Dead Accounts a “love letter” to her hometown. It’s the story of a local guy who’s collected a pile of money from a New York bank through questionable means. He runs back to his hometown Cincinnati to hide out and binge on Graeter’s and Skyline in the Midwest where his new morals don’t quite fit. It’s a comedy that makes a point about things that ought to matter in today’s world. Dead Accounts is presented through Feb. 11.
• Shakespeare’s Will at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company shows Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, on the day after the playwright’s death. She presents a different perspective on his life and hers. Veteran local actress Sherman Fracher is performing this show at Cincinnati Shakespeare on the evenings Henry VIII isn’t onstage through Sunday.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: