“THE WHIPPING MAN … is dazzling audiences”

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We’re living in a S.W. Florida live theater deluge right now. I saw three plays this past week, and now I dangle them on a continuum waiting for you to choose what you will decide to see. I just urge you to try for all of them before the storm leaves the area. The three plays are OTHER DESERT CITIES at Florida Rep, THE WHIPPING MAN at Gulfshore Playhouse and THE LIAR at Theatre Conspiracy.

For starters, If you want a feel-good evening, go see THE LIAR. Bill Taylor, the director, has whipped up a cast of 8 fine performers into a ribald, rollicking, riot of a play by the inimitable David Ives, in verse, yet, adapted from a 17th century comedy by Pierre Corneille. Trust me on this one, from a reviewer who genuinely hates farce, you won’t hate this one, because I loved it!! My colleague, Marsha Wagner, will have a full review on the project in next week’s paper. Call the Box Office at: (239) 936-3239.

At the other end of the continuum is a disturbing and brutally realistic play by Jon Robin Baitz. The playwright goes in where others fear to tread. And he has range. His play, A FAIR COUNTRY, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He won a Drama Desk Award for his THREE HOTELS. And he created the Emmy Award winning TV series, “Brothers and Sisters.” He’s no amateur.

This play is about a family. There is trouble. There is dysfunction with a capital D. The play opens on Christmas Eve. The dysfunctional- as- hell, daughter, powerfully played by a Rep favorite, Rachel Burttram, is home for the first time in six years. Where’s she been? In hospitals, in treatment, in recovery, in near suicide, despair and upheaval.

We meet her brother, the prodigal son, with not a whole lot of prodigals to contribute, and well played by Eric Mendenhall. Reliable and gifted Carrie Lund plays a pretty mean mother. On the whole, I would have run away from home as early as middle school if she had been mine. She’s not written as a cliche of what makes a dysfunctional mother, and Carrie plays Polly Wyeth with full power and dimension. Polly has a sister, who has been an albatross around her neck, now home from the search for sobriety, she adds another “D” to dysfunction. Sara Morsey who gave us a memorable Regina in THE LITTLE FOXES, deepens OTHER DESERT CITIES with her subtle portrayal of Silda Grauman.

And then we come to the father, Lyman Wyeth. The plot thickens and darkens. I won’t tell you much more, except to say that Wyeth had been a cowboy actor in Hollywood when the kids were growing up. The whole family knew Ronald and Nancy Reagan and later, Mr. President appoints Wyeth as Ambassador somewhere for his loyalty and his money to the GOP.

William McNulty gave me the finest performance of the group. He’s caught in the middle everywhere. Chewed up and spit out by his wife when he won’t side with her, loved but seemingly not fully able to help, besides money, with what’s wrong with his kids. McNulty is a pro and he delivers. You will remember him in a pivotal role in TIME STANDS STILL, one of my favorite plays of the season.

To go see this play, which certainly isn’t light, even though it is often funny, you have to be a grownup. This is what the New York Times critic said.: “The Most Richly Enjoyable New Play for Grown-ups.” I hope it finds an audience, willing to be grownup, not just entertained. It was hard for me to sit through this one, but I hung in there, and ended respecting what a strong, worthwhile production Florida Rep has brought to us. It comes with a solid, hard working cast and fine direction by Robert Cacioppo, who never let it go over the top. Now, you have to decide for yourself. I say, go. It runs until April 6th. The Box office #: 877 787-8053 or 239 332-4488.

Then, there is the middle play on our continuum. It clearly is my favorite. THE WHIPPING MAN, and it is dazzling audiences at the Gulfshore Playhouse. I insist that this be the one play this season you must see. Not just consider seeing it. You must see it. It is ALL that I believe great theater needs to be.

First there is this play, by a young playwright, Matthew Lopez, who’s written a truly superb piece, rich with craftsmanship, lyrical dialogue, well drawn characters and a plot to curl your hair. He is truly worthy of genuine promise. I have rarely known a play that grabbed me in the first five minutes and then brilliantly wove a spider web of enthrallment right up to the final blackout.

The story takes place at the end of the Civil War. We’re on a plantation near Richmond, a plantation owned by Jews who taught their slaves Judaism, the Torah, and what a kosher house demands. This isn’t a suburban comedy.

We see the Great Room of a house that has been torn and pillaged, half burnt. Two of the slaves have been hiding out there, and the son of the plantation thunders through the door, returning from the war where he has fought for four years. He is severely wounded. Gangrene demands immediate action. He won’t go to the hospital.

There is literally nothing to eat. But they rummage, some of it stolen from other ruined plantations. A case of whiskey has been “rescued. The play opens on the night before Passover, and will make a Seder, one of most poignant scenes in the play. It is, also that same day they hear that Lincoln, Father Abraham, has been assassinated. Well, there’s a lot more to the plot.

But know this. Why the play is so utterly gripping is because it raises gigantic questions that demand the audience face. Questions about race, family, love, faith, war, who is a slave, and who is a master, and just what changes when freedom is thrust upon you?

All three performers have played their roles in successful runs of THE WHIPPING MAN. Two in Philly, and one in Louisville. It is clear, what a difference to the rhythm and shape of their performances. They are absolutely superb, and couldn’t be more perfect for what they bring to this fascinating story.

My hat’s off to Kristin Coury, producing artistic director of Gulfshore Playhouse, for her vision and commitment to this work. She brought in Matt Pfeiffer from the Arden Theater in Philadelphia to direct it, and I couldn’t find a flaw in how he staged THE WHIPPING MAN. The production values were top flight, and that included the set, the lights, the sound, and the costumes.

It all worked. And I urge you to go see it. I doubt if you will see anything better this season. It is clearly my favorite of these three, and a must see.

Call the box office fast. I predict full houses, because for real theater goers, this is what theater is supposed to be. 1-888-811-4111
Theater Notes, by Sidney B. Simon
March 21, 2013