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The Whipping Man Scorches With Its Message, Direction and Actors

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The final moments of Matthew Lopez's thrillingly theatrical The Whipping Man, now smoldering inside Stages Repertory Theatre, now bursting into scalding flame, are silent.

There's a steady downpour outside the war-ravaged Richmond, Virginia, house in early April, 1865. It's been raining on and off for days, but the heat inside can't be extinguished. Two young men, one laid out on a ratty divan, one dressed to leave, share a bottle of whiskey. After all that has come before, we don't know what will happen next. It's just as likely for the whiskey to go flying, smashing into someone's head.

John, a young black man (Joseph Palmore), reels back into the room. He wants to leave; he's threatened to leave and has big plans to go up north; but he can't quite make that first step. He's free at last, but what's he to do? The house pulls him back. Caleb (Ross Bautsch), the young white man recuperating on the couch, pulls him back. Without any words, and as he has done so many times before, John pulls out that whiskey bottle and takes a drink, sitting across from Caleb. After a pause, wherein we can fill in all sorts of meaning, he moves closer and hands the bottle to Caleb. The gesture, replete with resignation and acceptance and forgiveness, is everything. The two young men, now sitting across from each other, share the bottle in silence, the dingy room bathed in candlelight, while the rain outside gently falls.

The drama ends on this quiet note, an enigmatic gesture that perfectly sums up the great themes Lopez has intertwined throughout - freedom, liberation, personal choice, religious belief, and, most importantly, scars from the past, both psychic and graphically physical. The healing has just begun for these two "peas in a pod," as they're described by stalwart house-steward Simon (Shawn Hamilton), before he, too, rushes off into that rainy night in search of his missing wife and daughter.

The execution: The "well-made" play, especially when accompanied by accomplished stagecraft, never dates, no matter the fashion or era. The Whipping Man, quickly making playwright Matthew Lopez's reputation as it burns through the stages of America, scorches anew at Stages. After the play's finish, you're likely to look up to see if the roof is still there.

Dramatic reversals and revelations come swift and powerful, like Grant's bombardment of Richmond, which have left that city in ruins and all but deserted. These three men now tentatively share what's left of the house, and what John can "liberate" from their neighbors' property. (Each subsequent scene has more stuff piled about, like chipped dishes, a broken chandelier, and extra chair.) Whose are all these things, asks Caleb to John after another midnight foray. "Mine now," says John. "What are you going to do with it?" "Own it." "Why?" John smirks triumphantly, "Because I can!"

These men are inextricably bound to each other. Newly freed, Simon and John are still slaves of their past, daring to move forward into unknown territory, while Caleb, dependent upon them after a brutal amputation, has had his independence horribly curtailed. Perhaps the most surprising twist of all is that the family and their former slaves are Jewish. Faith drives Simon, whose celebration of Passover ironically occurs when victory is declared at Appomattox, but tempered by the news that Lincoln has been assassinated. When he reverently intones "Father Abraham," and stirringly sings "Go Down Moses" during their meager Seder, where collard greens and hardtack stand in for bitter herbs and unleavened bread, the strength of his moral resolve and his implacable goodness in the face of unspeakable barbarity shines forth. He is the play's bedrock, and Hamilton is downright magnificent in the part: wise, stoic, and seething underneath with a prophet's righteous anger.

He is matched by Bautsch's pain-wracked Caleb and Palmore's scallywag of John. This three-man cast, dredging up the past which forever haunts the present, keeps Lopez's finely-etched period drama aboil and exceptionally fragrant. Under Seth Gordon's tightly-paced direction, the drama takes time for comedy (the horse meat-eating scene is a little gem), but the big moments are fraught with edge-of-your-seat excitement. The amputation scene is shockingly conveyed not by the actual event, but by Simon's autopsy-like description of exactly what's going to happen when he saws through bone, muscle, and skin. Held down by John, Caleb screams in drunken anguish, as Simon pours whiskey on the old saw and approaches the couch. We grit our teeth and push back in our seats. A thunderclap resounds with a blackout. You can hear the audience gasp.

The physical production is every bit as wondrous as the performances. You can almost smell the smoke and mold of the once-fine house laid bare in Jodi Bobrovsky's nuanced set design, with the lath work of the plaster walls exposed and soot staining the columns. Claremarie Verheyen's costumes are masterworks of threadbare, blood, and soil. Renee Brode's lighting is exceptionally exquisite, echoing dim candlelight; and Philip Owen's atmospheric sound design, perhaps with a bit too much Ken Burns "Civil War" inspiration behind it with that ubiquitous solo violin, is nonetheless effectively simple, especially when "Shenandoah" underscores Caleb's reading of his love letter to Sara, Simon's daughter and house slave. That's another family secret Lopez reveals at the most appropriate, dramatic time.

The verdict: Throughout this gripping drama, the dialogue crackles and spits. Freedom, so much desired and killed for, can become another set of chains if one doesn't know which path to take. Matthew Lopez thrillingly lays open the road, the festering wounds, the giddy rush of liberation toward that beacon now within reach. Stages gives us a tantalizing glimpse into this young playwright, whose other works we long to see. He has a fresh and startling voice. Stages sings his impassioned siren song in triumph.

The Whipping Man. Through May 25. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3102 Allen Parkway. Purchase tickets online at stagestheatre.com or call 713-527-0123. $33-$51.

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