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The Whipping Man

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Passover was the day after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. "...as Jews across the nation were celebrating this sacred ritual commemorating their ancestors' freedom from bondage in Egypt, a new kind of exodus was occurring all around them." Matthew Lopez, author of The Whipping Man, in Performances magazine.

Even nature is in conflict. Thunder and lightening introduce the Old Globe Theatre's West Coast premier of Matthew Lopez's well-wrought and superbly presented drama focusing on our nation's dark days following its darkest era. Set in the antebellum south during the Reconstruction's dawn, this extraordinary play features three members of a family shattered by the war that destroyed their culture and way of life. Robert Mark Morgan's stark set and Lap Chi Chu's shadowy lighting design portray the forbidding mood.

This is a history play, but it is not the stereotypical chronicle of an era, a time, or a timeline. It is about the heart of history, which beats with the stories of ordinary folks rather than icons. It is a serious story, told with moments of wit and humor that temper the gravity. And it succeeds brilliantly because it contains none of the expected or the ordinary.

Take the concept of a wealthy Richmond family, for instance. This one includes Caleb, a wounded Confederate soldier (convincingly and intensely played by Mark J. Sullivan ) and two of the family slaves, Simon (an astute Charlie Robinson) and John (a fiery Avery Glymph). The slaves are now free, but they remain confined by their own limitations and fears, preferring to stay in the ravaged home they know to venturing out in the confounded world.

Add the fact that all three of them are Jews, a small minority in the South that included wealthy European immigrants and the slaves that adopted the religion of their masters, and you have a conundrum within a conflict. The puzzle becomes increasingly complex as each man fights with the person he used to be and some soon-to-be uncovered family secrets.

Director Giovanna Sardelli takes advantage of an experienced Broadway, Off-Broadway, and television cast, pulling out every scripted stop to create a production that is both personal and universal.

As the play opens, Caleb arrives at his family's ruined home, near death from exposure and an infected bullet wound in his leg. Instead of the family he was born into, he is welcomed at rifle point by his home's current patriarch, the former slave Simon.

The two are soon joined by John, a fugitive and thief, who has come home to hide. In a nail-biting scene that brings home war's horrors, Simon and John amputate Caleb's gangrenous leg, leaving him an invalid during what promises to be a painful recovery. The soldier is no longer at war, but his mind and his body are sorely maimed. Struggling to comprehend the change that makes him totally dependent on the kindness of his former servants, Caleb cannot even depend on the faith he lost during the war.

Ironically, the slaves find comfort and hope in their Jewish religion, its rituals, and its holy days. Discovering that they are on the eve of Passover, they set about gathering the ingredients for a seder, the traditional meal of that Jewish holy day. John is a clever and resourceful thief, and between his stolen booty and Simon's inventiveness, the meal, the ritual ingredients, and the men are quickly assembled.

But before they sit down for the meal commemorating the Israelites' liberation from Egypt, the men learn of Lincoln's assassination. Their own liberator is gone. Yet, their white neighbors are rejoicing at his murder, and they dare not go out into the streets full of rioting, vanquished Southerners.

Their confinement forces them, individually and collectively, to confront the past that molded them. As the youngest member at the seder table, John asks the first of the four ritual questions, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The play's answers are not obvious, as the characters--both present and remembered--reveal their personal parables.

The whipping man, to whom slave owners dispatched their errant servants to be punished, is only one of the characters from the memoirs they share. Others include Elizabeth and Sarah, Simon's wife and daughter, who play integral roles in the story but are not present in the play.

As tales are told and secrets are revealed, the men discover that who they are is not what they thought they were and that the post-war world demands that they confront their demons and their futures in very short order. Their survival depends on how or if they will win the battles. The thunder will not cease anytime soon.

"The Whipping Man" continues on the Sheryl and Harvey White stage of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park through June 13. Performances are: 7:00 pm Tues-Weds; 8:00 pm Thurs-Sat; 7:00 pm Sun. Matinees Sat-Sun at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $29-$62, with discounts for full-time students, patrons 29 and under, seniors and groups. Reservations: www.TheOldGlobe.org or (619) 23-GLOBE.

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.