Oldcastle's 'Whipping Man' stings with power

Bennington troupe stages award-winning Civil War drama

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BENNINGTON — When I learned that Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man" was coming to Oldcastle Theatre Company this summer, I recall mentioning the prospects to its co-founder and artistic director Eric Peterson, who is also directing the current run through July 23.

My take was simple: I'd seen and reviewed the play in two other New England venues, both excellent productions in large 300-ish seat theaters. And there was the rub: Oldcastle tops out at around 140, making every seat in the house not only an excellent spot from which to watch a play, but also a place where an audience member has zero chance of escaping an emotionally charged story.

And such a tale is "The Whipping Man," set in April 1865 in Richmond, Va., the capitol of the Confederacy. Lee just surrendered to Grant, and throughout the south slaves are being freed and soldiers are returning home. In Jewish homes, the annual celebration of Passover is being celebrated.

Caleb DeLeon (Justin Pietropaolo), a young Confederate officer who has been severely wounded, finds his family's home in ruins and abandoned, except for two former slaves, Simon (Herb Parker) and John (Brandon Rubin). As the three men look for signs of life to return to the city, they wrestle with their shared past, the bitter irony of Jewish slave-owning and the reality of the new world in which they find themselves.

Peterson had his charges ready to go; in fact, these actors were so anticipating the experience of this play that they had arrived with most of their lines already memorized, according to the show's stage manager, and also Oldcastle co-founder, Gary Allan Poe.

Rubin was slippery as a snake as John, but funny to boot and too crafty for his own good — all attributes that made him come across as sympathetic despite his no-rules pragmatism. He made us at once condemn John and root for him — not an easy trick, and a testament to the complexity of the role as well as the considerable physical energy projecting from Rubin's acting chops.

Parker's Simon was larger than life, exploding from the stage with a religious fervor and a love for his new found freedom that was well suited as a contrast to the younger John — who needed Simon's constant prods to bring him back to the reality around the group. As an agent of irony while the tale unfolded, Parker excelled at conveying the slave's journey to freedom, both its zeniths and nadirs. Parker was, in essence, our Greek chorus and moral compass, all wrapped into one.

Finally, Oldcastle rookie Pietropaolo did Caleb right: he was totally convincing in both the physical movements and the subsequent agony — including the emotional — of a soldier wounded in battle. This is no small feat, and I say it as an Army veteran who has witnessed his share of such wounds in the past. I can't offer a higher credential or better reference point from which to assess Pietropaolo's mastery of this most difficult of acting requirements.

The performance ran right around two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Aside from a few opening night line hesitations, and the slight casting curiosity of having two healthy-stature actors portraying starving former slaves, "The Whipping Man" delivered the goods.

Lights by David V. Groupe and sound by Cory Wheat were exceptional in both timing and effects at emotional choke points. Costumes by Ursula McCarty went above and beyond in looking at both history and creative nuance. Carl Sprague's set design is also a smash hit, pieced together, according to him, by rummaging through Albany's architectural warehouse with Groupe and filling up a pickup truck with 19th century scrap.

As my preseason hunch told me, the 12th man in this production was Oldcastle's intimate seating, which by far made this production of "The Whipping Man" the most gut-searing of the three I've seen.

You will not be able to run and hide up the rafters as is my usual habit in other venues, always tucked away in the back row from where I can also gauge audience response. In Oldcastle, you cannot escape the gasps of the people around you, or not notice the sheen of sweat on their foreheads as this play's intensity kept rising like a fever, one degree at a time.

In short, Oldcastle might very well be the perfect venue to stage "The Whipping Man." And perhaps this is fitting, since almost two decades ago, Oldcastle was the place a young actor and aspiring writer named Matthew Lopez got one of his early turns at being on stage.

War, and its aftermath, has a way of heaving these ironies in our paths, and they become the greatest school teachers. The Civil War and the end of slavery in this country — of one man owning another — cost us a high price that we still feel to this day.

To sense just how high a price this is, not out of books or from talking TV heads, but rather in-your-face, you will not find a better school anywhere than Oldcastle to be your teacher. Class is still in session with "The Whipping Man" as textbook. Get yourself a seat before the bell rings.

"The Whipping Man" by Matthew Lopez and directed by Eric Peterson will run through July 22 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St. in Bennington. Tickets and info: 802-447-0564 or www.oldcastletheatre.org.

Telly Halkias is a member of the American Theatre Critics Assn. (ATCA), and a longtime regional drama critic and writer. Email: tchalkias@aol.com. Twitter: @TellyHalkias

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