‘Whipping Man’ explores war, religion and change
Sean Parris (from left), Tim Edward Rhoze and Derek Gaspar rehearse for "The Whipping Man." | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
‘The Whipping Man’
Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
7:30 p.m. Tuesdays (Jan. 22 and Feb. 12 only), 1 p.m. (except Feb. 6) and 7:30 p.m. (except Feb. 13) Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. (except 7:30 p.m. Jan. 25) Fridays, 2:30 p.m. (except Jan. 19) and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. (except Jan. 27, Feb. 3 and Feb. 24) Sundays, Jan. 26-Feb. 24; press opening Jan. 25; previews Jan. 18-24
$25-$72; $25-$54 for previews
(847) 673-6300; northlight.org
Updated: January 17, 2013 12:26PM
Three Jewish men celebrate Passover with a Seder, retelling the story of the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.
This particular Seder has added meaning in Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man” at Northlight Theatre. The three men are Caleb, a wounded Confederate soldier who has just returned to his family’s home in Richmond, Virginia, and John and Simon, two of his father’s former slaves who still live there.
Caleb is played by Derek Gaspar. Prior to the war, Gaspar said, his character could be described as “a rich boy from the South figuring out who he is and putting his father on a pedestal. He’s got all the typical young men issues, trying to figure out what he believes. I wouldn’t say he’s much of a deep thinker, until the war. He spent four years at war and that really changed him. It opened his eyes. He started seeing a lot of pain and destruction, and also saw a side of himself that he had never seen before. He’s in a place of complete identity crisis.”
Gaspar first discovered “The Whipping Man” when he was in graduate school at the Theatre School at DePaul University, looking for scenes to do with his best friend, Sean Parris. By a stroke of luck, Parris was cast in the Northlight production as John, the younger of the two slaves.
Parris described his character as “a conundrum. He’s both cynical and optimistic. He’s bursting with dreams and hope. He’s definitely happy to be free but the big question that comes up in this play — not only for him but for everybody — is, ‘What do we do now?’
“He’s an educated young guy who definitely doesn’t heed to the old ways at all,” Parris continued. “He’s always asking questions. He’s ambitious but it’s laced with bitterness. You can see ways it could go if he holds onto that bitterness — which he has a right to. You also can see the other end of the spectrum — if he lets go of that how wide the future is for him.”
Tim Edward Rhoze, producing artistic director of Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre in Evanston, plays Simon, a slave who is a generation older than John and Caleb. He has served Caleb’s family for most of his life. “There is no back-story of his youth there,” Rhoze said. “But I have been able to piece it together like a puzzle.”
Those pieces include the fact that Simon is married, even though it was illegal for slaves to marry at that time, and that he has a daughter.
“He probably never thought that he would be emancipated,” Rhoze posited. “He is ultimately elated but also overwhelmed and overcome by the fact that freedom has now reached him at his doorstep. He’s looking to put his life together anew but it’s challenging because all his life he’s been in servitude and owned by someone. He’s a complicated individual in that he’s illiterate, because he can’t read or write, but he’s extremely wise.”
Simon practices Judaism because of “the household he grew up in,” Rhoze said. “It was the teachings that he heard and the practicing of the Jewish holidays and festivals that gave him his strong belief in God.”
The Seder has significance for all three characters.
Initially Gaspar’s Caleb “strongly resists the Seder,” the actor said. “He has a strong respect for it but, at the same time, he’s not sure he wants to be a part of it.”
Parris believes that, for John, the Seder means “stability and family. Even after all the bickering and arguing and confusion, this is the one thing where we can come together and see that we’re similar.”
Rhoze believes that the Seder is for Simon, “an affirmation yearly of his faith that things will be better. When? He doesn’t know. The fact that he has that faith will sustain him until it happens.”