Woody Weingarten

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‘Whipping Man’ is a fresh, exciting Mill Valley must-see

Momentarily celebrating in “The Whipping Man” are (from left) Tobie Windham (as John), L. Peter Callender (Simon) and Nicolas Pelczar (Caleb). Photo: Kevin Berne.


Minutes into it, I surmised that all the elements in “The Whipping Man” would come together as exquisitely as a Rubik’s Cube.

My instincts were right.

The drama by Matthew Lopez, who simultaneously slices into the vagaries of humanity and inhumanity as skillfully as he depicts a gangrenous Civil War amputation, is a one-of-a-kind powerhouse despite it making me think of August Wilson one minute and Redd Foxx the next.

The Marin Theatre Company production in Mill Valley in fact isn’t derivative. It’s as fresh and exciting as anything on the boards in the entire Bay Area.

Director Jasson Minadakis has excelled his previous successes with this show, making the opening night audience leap to its collective feet with approval. Like a magician whose magic wand is finely tuned, he ensures that each action, each phrase, each emotion is cloaked in authenticity.

The acting — by L. Peter Callender as black patriarch and ex-slave Simon; Tobie Windham as John, a freed sneak thief and dreamer seeking refuge; and Nicholas Pelczar as Caleb, a Jewish white slaver’s scion who’s been wounded in more than one way — is universally superb.Inspired, also, are the intentionally decrepit set by scenic designer Kat Conley, the dramatic lighting by Ben Wilhelm, the moody sound effects by Will McCandless and the apt costumes by Jacqueline Firkins.

On the surface, the play — marked by sharp dialogue that draws not nervous laughter but guffaw

s triggered by genuine characters rather than stereotypes — is about Jews and blacks and, surprisingly, black Jews. Its themes erupt in a series of verbal mazes — including the DNA of slavery, the roots of freedom, and the construction and deconstruction of family and forgiveness.Let alone brotherhood, faith and hypocrisy.

Much of the subject matter’s been tackled before, but rarely executed as well, possibly never in a scenario involving black Jews.

The scene is a dilapidated homestead in Richmond, Virginia, in 1865, over a stormy three-day peri

od that includes Abe Lincoln’s assassination.A makeshift Passover Seder (commemorating the Israelites escape from Egyptian bondage) becomes an unusual focus, masterfully created by Lopez, a gay Episcopalian of Puerto Rican and Polish-Russian heritage whose direct knowledge of Jewish holidays apparently came in part from attending ritual meals hosted by his Semitic aunt and cousins.

The play, presented as a co-production with Virginia Stage Company, stays on point throughout — another kudo due Minadakis.

Its only inconsistency is the dialogue, which sometimes veers into current usage rather than yesterday’s.

And its only flaw is that once in a while a character talks in needlepoint-speak. Such as: “War is not proof of God’s absence; it’s proof of his absence from men’s hearts.”More insightful is what I perceive to an accurate portrayal of Jewish sensibility: “We talk with God…sometimes we even rassle with Him. But [as Jews] we keep asking questions.”

Astute, too, is this poignant passage about slavery: “It wasn’t a friendship…not when one owns the other.”

Lopez is consistently sharp but occasionally shows flashes of brilliance. As in labeling Lincoln, in keeping with biblical inserts and the Exodus theme of Passover, as “Father Abraham, who set us free” and “our American Moses.”

Highlights in “The Whipping Man” range from a hilarious set piece about cutting and chewing horsemeat to a rousing rendition of a multi-purposed spiritual, “Let My People Go” — along with shocking, intense moments stemming from both verbal and visual reminders of whippings and their aftermath.Revelations of long-held secrets only deepen the drama.

“The Whipping Man,” finally, attacks with passion and muscle. There’s no question that it burned into my brain and resonated long after I left the theater. Bay Area showcases seem to exist in every nook and cranny, but a theatrical must-see is rare.

This is one.

“The Whipping Man” plays at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, through Sunday, April 28. Performances Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $15 to $57. Information: (415) 388-5208 or marintheatre.org.