Thunder rumbles and rain pounds on the windows of a damaged, seemingly deserted mansion in Richmond, Va. Lightening flashes as the front door opens and a wounded, limping man falls into the room. It is April, 1865.
"Where is everyone?” he asks, clutching his leg and moaning. It's Caleb de Leon (Sean Scrutchins), son of the mansion's owner, just returned from the horrors of Petersburg and the Civil War.
The Confederacy has surrendered and Lincoln has issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves. Richmond is in ruins and freed slaves don't know what to do with their new status.
The play pictures a key moment in American history, bringing it to a most personal level.
An older black man, Simon (Cajardo Lindsey), a former de Leon slave, enters from the back of the house, carrying a lantern, and begins talking to Caleb, as he examines the wound — gangrene means amputation is needed right now if Caleb is to live, he says, having gained experience working in the army hospital...."Get as drunk as you can," Simon says, handing him a whiskey bottle after he cleans the wound with the whiskey.
At this point, a masked man peers in the window, then enters. It's John (Lawrence Curry), a younger former slave, who has been out stealing food, whiskey, furnishings, some very welcome coffee and more from adjoining deserted homes. Burlap bags accumulate through the evening as he keeps scavenging.
Simon commands him to help with the amputation, accomplished in a bit of theater magic — and we're only 30 minutes into the script.
Tension lets up a bit from here on as the men discuss their mutual past in this house — including, for the slaves, occasional forced visits to the Whipping Man as punishment decreed by Caleb's father. John, who was Caleb's age and a close playmate, recalls a day that Caleb asked to use the whip on John, a shocking few minutes that illustrated a lifestyle now gone.
Simon is pining for his wife Elizabeth and his daughter Sarah, who are with the master, he thinks. This connects to a packet of letters Caleb is carrying — written to the same Sarah, his secret love.
Simon remembers that it's the first night of Passover and he decides to hold a Seder dinner. We learn from the director's notes that there were about 50,000 Jews in the south at the time and masters would bring their slaves into that faith, so Simon knew the ritual and even had a family Haggadah his master had given him. The ceremony, referring to the escape of the Jews from slavery long ago, symbolizes so much.
Food substitutions were made — a few pieces of hardtack served as matzoh bread. Candles were lit and John, highly literate when it was illegal to teach a slave to read, said the prayers. "Your mother taught me the ABCs,” he told Caleb.
This intimate scene and the beautifully written script bring what was a horrendous time right into the faces of the audience.
As a final blow, John tells Simon that the master has sold Elizabeth and Sarah and Simon leaves to search for them, after letting John and Caleb know that they share the same father.
As the play ends, the two men are alone together. Will they stay? Where does the future lead?
"The Whipping Man" is absolutely stunning theater, sending a viewer home with a great deal of material for thought.
"The Whipping Man" plays through Feb. 15 at Curious Theatre, 1080 Acoma St., Denver. It is directed by Kate Folkins and Chip Walton. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $18 to $44, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org