IF YOU GO
What: Jewish Confederate soldier and two slaves confront the end of the Civil War
When: 8 p.m. through Saturday, March. 30. Additional 3 p.m. matinée showings on March 17, 23, 24 & 30.
Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples
Cost: $33-$45, $15 for students
Information: 866-811-4111 or gulfshoreplayhouse.org
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples, FL
With Matt Pfeiffer, it's all about religion.
Or maybe ceremony.
Or maybe movies. He name-checks "Lincoln" twice.
Or maybe politics. He also name-checks "Zero Dark Thirty."
There's even an unusual "s" word that keeps cropping up in our conversation, but thankfully it isn't "sequester." Instead of Boehner, budgets and billions, we're talking Seder, slaves and the South.
Pfeiffer landed in Naples to direct the Gulfshore Playhouse production of "The Whipping Man." The Matthew Lopez play examines the final days of the Civil War, when the peace of Appomattox coincided with Passover.
A Confederate soldier returns home to find his family scattered, his ancestral home destroyed and two now-freed slaves inhabiting the ruins after the war tumbled through Richmond. Evidence exists of slave-owning Jewish families and Passover in 1865 did coincide with the end of the war, but the play is only inspired by history, not rooted in fact.
Longtime Philadelphia actor Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. plays Simon, while Biko Eisen-Martin plays John. Gulfshore Playhouse artistic associate Cody Nickell takes on the role of Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon. Pfeiffer, Hobbs and Nickell were all involved in the show at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre; Eisen-Martin just finished a production at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Three issues dominate "The Whipping Man." Faith. Family. Freedom. Each is bound inextricably with the other, and the characters' fates linked in sometimes unforeseen ways.
"What is the cost and responsibility of freedom," Pfeiffer said. "Each character struggles with these questions."
Confederate soldier Caleb faces a changing world that will be radically different than any he's known. Immediate tension erupts when Caleb tries to issue orders to Simon and John (Lopez litters the play with Biblical names).
"People are intrigued by the story," Pfeiffer said. "They like a perspective on history you didn't have before."
"The Whipping Man" takes its title from an unseen character, a literal "whipping man" who would dole out punishment to slaves with a pearl-handled bullwhip. Unsavory recollections of the practice - and varied relationships between the characters spill out in a series of fraught conversations that reveal long-hidden secrets.
"The eating scenes are the first real dealings with faith," Pfeiffer said. "They are the gateway of ugly truth."
Caleb, Simon and John are forced to take shelter in the DeLeon family's bombed-out home and even butcher a cavalry mount for food. Even under these circumstances though, the trio manages to concoct a Seder using celery, collard greens, stolen eggs, hardtack and more to celebrate Passover.
"There's a seder in the play," Pfeiffer said. "The origin of theater began with religious ceremony."
Pfeiffer calls the Seder, the play's climax, "the gateway of ugly truths."
"Everyone is at their rawest," he said. "Really harsh things are said. These terrible secrets are being wrestled with."
During the Seder, the little family that came together over the previous few days falls apart in dramatic, provocative fashion. Caleb and John learn things about their past and Caleb about his beloved. Simon learns the terrible fate of his wife and daughter.
The final scenes reveal psyches and lives as shattered as the physical landscape of the South after the Civil War. All the comity of the first act vanishes.
"All the friendship goes away," Pfeiffer said. "In the Seder, we have to destroy that."
Pfeiffer hesitates to reveal many details about the play. He does expect a strong reaction from audiences. The first half features a brilliant, chilling sequence where Simon and John are forced to perform field surgery on an injured Caleb. He calls the second half, with the engaging Seder scene and its bundle of contradictions, confrontations and terrible consequences, "compelling."
"Great plays ask great questions," Pfeiffer said. "That's our job in theatre, to change people's lives."
"The Whipping Man" does that. Thrills. Laughs. Jewish slaves and pressing questions about the future of America, delivered live on stage, direct from 1865.