The Indiana Repertory Theatre’s current Mainstage production The Whipping Man takes audiences back to Virginia in April 1865. The play opens with Caleb, the son of a Virginia slave owner, stumbling into his home at the end of the Civil War. He (Andrew C. Ahrens) has been fighting for the Confederacy and returns to his family’s land in the hopes of reuniting with them, but the only man there to greet him is the former slave Simon (David Alan Anderson). The two must try and navigate the minefield of their new relationship. Simon is a free man now but they still feel a deep loyalty to each other. Their shared Jewish faith gives them a common ground as they celebrate the Passover Seder together.
The show touches on many issues. What happens when you lose your faith? What happens when the world you know has crumbled? How can people move past bitterness, anger and guilt to join together and rebuild an entire country? Playwright Matthew Lopez deals with each of these topics in a delicate but intense way.
Ahrens has built a solid foundation of dramatic roles at the IRT. His talent has been evident in everything from Macbeth to Crime and Punishment and this latest performance is a wonderful addition to that body of work. I think Ahrens has a wonderful career ahead of him and look forward to seeing what he does next.
Over the years Anderson has conditioned IRT audiences to expect excellence from him in every performance and he does not disappoint. His portrayal of the loyal and strong Simon is spot on. Tyler Jacob Rollinson rounds out the cast as John, an angry young man who has grown up alongside Caleb and has seen the difference between them highlighted every day of his life. Seeds of discontent were planted early and have had years to blossom in his soul.
Erhard Rom, the scenic designer, creates a fourth character with the dilapidated old mansion. The broken windows and eerie atmosphere the house provides brings the severity of the situation into focus. It’s been ravaged by years of war and is now a hollowed out shell of its former glory. Lighting Designer Kendall Smith adds to the dramatic mood with a lightning storm in the first scene. All of these elements combine together to remind the characters that the old world is gone; something new must be built from the ashes, but it will never be the same.
Before the show began the IRT’s Artistic Director, Janet Allen, mentioned that one of the responsibilities of art is to start tough conversations. The horrors of war are not pretty. The cruelty of slavery is disturbing, but these things are part of our history and should not be ignored because they make us uncomfortable. In the wake of both Lincoln and Django Unchained receiving Academy Award Best Picture nominations last month the play seems particularly relevant.
The show isn’t for the faint of heart, but the important things in life usually aren’t. There is adult language and themes, but it is a powerful show that will start some essential conversations. At the end of the opening night performance the entire house was on its feet, reminding us that the things that often resonate with people on a deep level are often those that deal with the most difficult subject matter.
Don't Miss the Show
The Indiana Repertory Theatre is located at 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis, one-half block west of the Circle Center Mall between northbound Illinois St. and southbound Capitol Ave. “The Whipping Man" runs until Sunday, March 24 on IRT's Main Stage. Times for performances can be found at www.irtlive.com or by calling the IRT box office at (317) 635-5252. To purchase tickets call (317) 635-5252 or order online at www.irtlive.com