The Safety of the Past

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

The Whipping Man, Matthew Lopez's new play, depends on a big historical conceit. It's a bit like a conversation that begins with "I know this sounds a little far-fetched but, go with for me a second . . . " Mr. Lopez begins with a historical fact: there were Jews in the South during the Civil War. From there he wonders, what would it be like if those Jews owned slaves and those slaves became observant Jews?

Okay, that question is either going to strike a cord and you're intrigued or . . . you're not. The Whipping Man is counting on you being fascinated.

The play is set in Richmond, Virginia in 1865. The Confederate Army has just lost at Appomattox. The South is surrendering. The tide has turned. We're in a once grand house that's since been shot up and is a wreck. It's Caleb's family home. As the play opens and the swelling sound score and thunderclap subside, Caleb hobbles in with a bad leg wound. Still guarding the house is the loyal Simon - think any one of the wise old slave stereotypes. Shortly we'll be joined by John - the young, angry, misguided slave.

You can picture the whole thing, right? Well, maybe not the Seder. Yes, there's a Seder.

Again, either this sounds perfect to you - a bit like the theatrical version of comfort food - or you've got a 'been there, done that' attitude.

What's interesting is how many folks in the American theater are intrigued. "The Whipping Man" has made the rounds of the regional theaters over the past several years - Louisville, Chicago, New York - you name it - over 40 productions. This production started out at South Coast Repertory and then will move to the Pasadena Playhouse - in a rare but welcome local collaboration. What is it that's made this play so attractive to so many artistic directors?

The cynics would say it's a play that checks a lot of boxes: small three person cast; single location; period set and costumes; appeals to a Jewish audience; appeals to an African-American audience; deals with racial tensions, et cetera.

Perhaps most importantly - it's a play about the past - not just the American past but even the character's pasts. Not much happens. In fact, it's so static that one of the characters is literally immobilized to keep him there. The dramatic engine isn't built around action but rather discovering connections, putting the pieces together. For an audience, that's fun. You get to feel smart.

It's also safe. After all, it's a play about the end of the Civil War. Any racial discord is contained safely in the past. I can't help but ask, given everything that's filling our headlines, "shouldn't plays illuminate our futures as much as our pasts?"

However you come down on that question - or the setup for The Whipping Man - it's a fascinating look into what's getting produced in the American theater.

The Whipping Man plays at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through January 25. Then it moves to the Pasadena Playhouse and plays through March 1.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening The Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours with one intermission.