‘The Whipping Man’ at KC Rep: Family, religion and the scars of slavery

“The Whipping Man” is an exceptional play, and the Kansas City Repertory Theatre gives it an exceptional production.

The three-character historical drama by Matthew Lopez, set in Richmond in the days after the South’s surrender at Appomattox, focuses on three members of the extended DeLeon family — although “family” doesn’t quite convey the true nature of the relationships.

Young Caleb DeLeon, a Confederate officer who has fought at many of the major Civil War engagements, finds his way home on a dying horse and half-crawls into the living room of what used to be the family’s two-story dwelling. Shelled, burned and looted, the house is in ruins.

There he finds Simon, a former DeLeon slave, who is awaiting the return of Caleb’s father as well as Simon’s wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Sarah. Caleb has been shot and the wound has become infected. Simon immediately recognizes that gangrene is spreading and that the leg must come off above the knee.

Soon another former slave named John, who is Caleb’s age, appears. He’s been ransacking the abandoned homes in the neighborhood and Simon enlists his aid in the amputation. (Director Eric Rosen’s depiction of the actual event is disturbing without splashing much gore around.)

Despite the fact that Caleb is white and Simon and John are black, they are all Jewish. The DeLeons were a Jewish family who raised their slaves in the Jewish faith. And although Simon is illiterate, John is not. Indeed, books are among the items he “liberates” as he loots houses in search of nice clothes, fine china, table silver, furniture and whiskey.

As the narrative unfolds we learn that Caleb has survived the horrendous trench warfare of Petersburg and that he in fact may be a deserter; that Simon plans to build a house for Elizabeth and Sarah when they’re reunited; and that John has a plan to go to New York City.

But for the time being they’re holed up together. When John announces that by consulting a “liberated” pocket calendar that he’s determined that it’s the first day of Passover, Simon decides to have an improvised seder, the ritual meal to remember and celebrate the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

Kyle Hatley, who plays Caleb, is very good; Josh Breckenridge as John is better; and best of all is Michael Genet, who blows Simon into a mesmerizing larger-than-life character. The seder is a beautifully played scene that begins humbly, becomes spirited and optimistic and ultimately explodes after poorly kept secrets come to the surface, and Simon has to face scathing revelations. Each of these characters experience profound changes during the course of the play, but none more so than Simon, who is the play’s moral center until his moral equilibrium is torn away.

Family secrets are, of course, a playwright’s stock-in-trade, and this play has its share of bombshells. Caleb’s feelings for the unseen Sarah become a volatile ingredient and it seems that Caleb and John, who grew up together, are closer than either of them suspected.

Rosen’s direction is nuanced, deeply emotional and, as we’ve come to expect, physically impeccable. Jack Magaw’s scenic design, atmospherically illuminated by Victor En Yu Tan’s lighting, is some of the best work I’ve seen on the Rep stage. Alison Heryer’s costumes make a major contribution as does the sound design by Andre Pluess.

This play is as serious as a heart attack, but Lopez finds opportunities for bursts of humor, thanks to John’s sardonic view of the world and the occasional use of intentional anachronisms. Ultimately, though, it’s a sobering meditation on the legacy of slavery that suggests that we — the American people — are one big dysfunctional family still trying to work it out.