WATERTOWN — At one point in Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man,’’ set a few days after the end of the Civil War, a former slave named Simon stiffens when Caleb, a member of the family that once owned him, issues a peremptory command.
“All these things you’re telling me to do, by rights now you need to be asking me to do,’’ Simon tells Caleb.
As spoken by the estimable Johnny Lee Davenport, who plays Simon in the New Repertory Theatre production of “The Whipping Man’’ directed by Benny Sato Ambush, those words register with understated but unmistakable force. The message: Everything is different now. Caleb’s own dire condition is physical (and maybe metaphorical) evidence of that.
Though its plot takes a couple of detours into potboiler territory, “The Whipping Man’’ is on balance an unflinching exploration, in vivid close-up, of slavery’s legacy. Caleb, a wounded Confederate soldier portrayed by Jesse Hinson, seems to feel that his family were relatively benevolent slaveowners (as if there could be such a thing). But Simon and another former slave, John (Keith Mascoll), know otherwise. The title figure is never seen, but his presence looms over the play.
The playwright introduces an intriguing spiritual dimension to the standard Civil War drama: Caleb is Jewish, and so are Simon and John, having been raised as Jews by the family. The matter of faith — its presence, its absence — runs through “The Whipping Man,’’ receiving its Boston premiere at New Rep. Lopez also touches, perhaps too overtly, on the parallels between the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt and that of African-Americans in the United States.
It’s April 1865, and the three of them have converged at the Richmond, Va., home of Caleb’s family. As rendered by set designer Janie E. Howland, the onetime grandeur of the home has yielded to the ravages of war, evident in boarded-up windows, gashed walls, a staircase with a broken banister. Scott Pinkney’s shadowy lighting design contributes to the gothic atmosphere.
When Caleb staggers into the home, with a bullet in a leg that is rapidly turning gangrenous, he encounters Simon, standing guard. Simon is eagerly anticipating a reunion with his wife and daughter, who left, he tells the soldier, with Caleb’s father. Once John arrives on the scene, it’s not long before tensions flare between him and Caleb. “War’s over. You lost. We won,’’ he tells Caleb bitingly. There’s the strong suggestion of a hidden history between them, an untold story. A mystery lingers, too, as to why each of them is unwilling to take permanent leave of the shattered house and Caleb refuses to be taken to a hospital.
Simon is the most centered of the trio. Jewish traditions matter deeply to him, as we see when he organizes a ceremony to mark the first night of Passover, using hardtack in place of matzo. Simon’s faith is more real and tangible to him than it is to Caleb, who lost his capacity for belief on the bloody battlefield.
Davenport takes a while to hit his stride in the New Rep production (or at least he did on opening night), but he eventually delivers a performance with the gravitas, moral weight, and power to move us that we’ve come to expect from this fine actor. He is especially poignant in capturing the grief Simon feels upon hearing news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Though confined to a chair for most of the play, Hinson makes for a compelling Caleb; the actor gives his character the wild, desperate edge of a man who feels trapped and set adrift at the same time. As John, Mascoll is effective in the lighter moments, but his portrayal needs more dramatic force for us to really feel the depth of John’s animosity toward Caleb.
In the world evoked in “The Whipping Man,’’ it’s time for the Confederate soldier, and the defeated region and way of life he represents, to adjust to the new reality and come to grips with the wrongs they’ve committed. But the old order proves to have a cruel trick up its sleeve, reminding us that some wrongs can outlive the system that enabled them.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.