It is 1865. The American Civil War is finally over, and Lincoln bestows freedom to the slaves.
Overnight, newfound freedom and equality sweep through the nation.
Or at least that’s how it would seem.
In the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man,” issues of race, religion and social structure collide to challenge preconceived notions of freedom and equality.
The play begins as Caleb DeLeon (Andrew Ahrens) returns home, injured from one of the final bloody battles of the Civil War.
Suffering infections and barely able to walk, he is cared for by his elderly former slave, Simon (David Anderson), who has remained at the war-torn DeLeon estate throughout the war, awaiting the family’s return.
The two are joined by John (Tyler Rollinson), a young former slave of the DeLeons’ whose head is full of abolitionist literature, faith and a desire to settle a score between himself and Caleb.
The play’s events show us that Simon and John are very different. The hardworking Simon righteously stays with Caleb and cares for the DeLeon estate and persuades John—who prefers a life of leisurely reading and looting—not to leave.
Simon and John remain bound together, however, by their past enslavement and Jewish faith.
One of the play’s first ironies is the realization that the DeLeons, whose ancestors were Jewish slaves in Egypt, had slaves of their own.
Traditional roles are shifted as the emancipated slaves are now in control and the former master is now helplessly wounded.
The stark war-stricken set design by Erhard Rom is a constant reminder of the bleak, crippled state of the South and its inhabitants following the war.
The unfolding drama provides exciting and, at times, humorous twists and turns as opinions about the morality and righteousness of each character are challenged.
These twists and turns are not predictable and cliché. They are refreshingly unexpected.
The music for “The Whipping Man” comes from an impressive original score by Gregg Coffin.
Using period instruments, the recorded sound is a gateway into the gloom and fatigue of the stage and enhances the overall mood of the show.
The show’s many strengths and some weaknesses make it impossible to truly form one solid theme or message at the show’s conclusion.
The show is a commentary on the choices we make and how we deal with the sometimes everlasting consequences.
Caleb is plagued with the guilt of whipping his slaves, and the consequences of his actions are evident in John’s constant taunting remarks toward him, as well as the gruesome scars on Simon’s back.
Similarly stated, the consequences of slavery and a civil war left a visible scar on America that is often painful for us to revisit.
Audiences may feel overwhelmed by the many ideas this play presents, and as a result the true meaning of the show can become unclear.
Still, provocative questions about the bounds of family and faith help “The Whipping Man” succeed in showing that the Civil War’s closing did not grant immediate equality to all.
Rather, the war’s end was the beginning of a bumpy road to equality that is still unfolding today among people of all races and backgrounds.